Fiction: Forrest Roth
The Signature of a Gentle Man As Sid Vicious
You and I stare at the signature of the Gary Oldman your famous sister met in Los Angeles. That is: the handwriting your famous sister procured with or without the real Gary Oldman, which, at first, appears to be independent of an ordinary human hand—if there was, in fact, a hand at all signing and not the sheer force of violent alcoholic intensity which Gary Oldman the famous actor is known for and has harnessed so well in playing, for instance, Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy, a famous role allowing him later to project a semi-autonomous discursive apparatus that constructs a standard handwritten indicator of the subject’s name, this particular one induced by your famous sister’s modest request while she was bleeding in front of the Gehry Museum if, in fact, it actually exists. Needless to say, the anecdotal prize of her autograph book.
Gary Oldman, light of her life, fire of her loins. A stumbling of the tongue in four steps to the coldest degree of nth on the roof of the mouth. Gare. Ree. Old. Man.
Never speak syllables in the longitude of obsession which can only be guessed at.
The book should be thrown out this time. Burned, I say to you—but only while you are sleeping with the windows open. Along with the smeared thumb-print in blood. Hers or Gary Oldman’s. I usually do not want to think like this before my errand into the wilderness.
You signed the postal slip yourself. You knew what the parcel was and again her well-traveled purse is here, on our table, mailed with a return address. His, in her writing. There, she says. An invite. A sign with no name. Meaning his. Another his.
Signatures, you have heard me contend on another night caretaking the same purse, are evidence of chance encounters with people known and unknown who have left us forever, and the autograph book an eternal sepulcher that even an award-winning actor like Gary Oldman himself will one day inhabit, though first in your famous sister’s collection, populated with the dear departed souls of famous American actors of the 1980s, such as Molly Ringwald and Tom Hulce, who constitute a couple of the primary ringleaders of these catacombs which you have me visit deep underneath the city night like Virgil leading Dante, not at certain of what we will find but each antechamber filling itself with the foreboding of unwelcome anecdotes to come until our feet touch the ice. This is why every signature is always accorded its own page, its renown unable to share the space with lesser autographs of not-so-famous actors who could only aspire to become the next Gary Oldman, or perhaps the next Sid Vicious, or perhaps someone’s famous sister, or perhaps a bloody anonymous thumb-print. Such are the various prices of failed fame in this life.
When you and her were teenagers in your civil servant parents’ upstate home, she watched carefully, intently, repeatedly the scene in Sid and Nancy where Sid Vicious walks through a plate-glass door, and she had said to you, I, like, so gotta get Gary Oldman’s signature. An autograph book she has kept for years in her purse is a study of the depths she herself could plumb if only she could have walked through a plate-glass door at the Gehry Museum and discover the auto-hypnotic signature of Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious walking through a plate-glass door and signing his would-be name directly into the consciousness of a failed American etiquette which never knows what to do with itself inside a building where gentle men and gentle woman hold open the doors. She knew then the accidental self-induced violence was not really accidental or even anecdotal, that the path to celebrity in America had nothing to do with the Warholian fifteen minutes suspended in potentiality of our ever-commodified existence but a finger in the air, hovering, flailing to trace its path for the viewer looking on in horror or disbelief and find a name belonging to neither subject nor object, to neither Sid Vicious nor Gary Oldman, but to those who could never simply just walk through a building for no reason.
Like you, for instance.
To walk through a building, I must open the door myself because, in the aberrant, self-loathing city, gentle men or gentle women are never entirely at my immediate disposal and because I do not mind opening doors for myself. I confess I enjoy opening my own doors, much in the same way those who have worked as dishwashers in restaurants find it soothing to wash the filthiest dishes by uncovered hand in their sink at home, even if they had used a machine at their previous job. It is true there is a certain unqualified shame in being forced to open my own doors in the city, but what do I care—I am neither famous nor particularly anecdotal. I am sensible and sense-ridden, however, which is why I take the elevator if it is working instead of walking up eighteen flights in a dimly lit stairwell scaling upwards in a logical, orderly box which further unwinds as I ascend. And I am frugal because it keeps occurring to me on the way up that I may never meet face-to-face the gentle man connected to your famous sister if I happen to unfortunately cross paths with someone doing a poor job of being Sid Vicious, unlike Gary Oldman, who is always Sid Vicious in his movies and does a very good job at it, regardless of whether he is also a psychopathic murderous DEA agent or a Transylvanian prince or a self-mutilated sexual deviant or a Russian ne’er-do-well.
You are very disappointed that I do not cross paths with any of these colorful roles in the hallway.
I cross paths with no one in the hallway. I only encounter the usual cacophony of thin voices wandering, some human, some televisional, some radiological, and some I wonder if they are an amalgam of things I could not possibly imagine happening behind all those closed doors and narrate to you, even though, you have told me, I have a very good imagination and am skilled at using it when it suits me. I believe imagination is a terribly overrated thing and does too much work for us, like a gentle man or gentle woman who holds the door open for me though I derive pleasure from my own door-opening, especially if it is a plate-glass door I can completely see through. I am not so fortunate here in this apartment building because of the usual etiquette of privacy we expect in all buildings. Were I to stop at one of these opaque wooden doors thinking your famous sister may be behind one of them and put my hand to it try to imagine what those voices were alluding to or signifying, I would run the risk of having someone come out into the hallway—perhaps even your famous sister—and find me silently placing my hand to the door as would a lonely pervert ready to let Jesus into his heart again, my only best colorful role here for you, but not like Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious as a violent alcoholic, unconcerned about any and all doors and being chanced upon by an accidental audience.
No one ever steps into a hallway. Hallways are a vast corridor for the sake of being a vast corridor, designed specifically for intimidation and the false prospect of anecdotal behavior, channeling, separating, dividing and ensconcing us into our thin televisional and radiological voices meant to be heard by only gentle men and gentle women who have no company this evening.
The door I believe your famous sister is behind features the televisional voices I recognize from Sid and Nancy but not the voice of the gentle man she is watching it with. He is quiet, relaxed, somewhat perturbed, perhaps uninspired, but still watching the movie with your famous sister all the same, watching it over and over for days, weeks on end, giving particular attention at her behest to the scene where Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious walks through a plate-glass door. This happens, as the movie posits, because someone thoughtlessly distracts Sid Vicious at the crucial moment of proper entry into a building: execute the correct maneuver of etiquette, or have someone else suffer the consequences. Often I consider if one could internalize this distraction, whether doors as we know them could become obsolete, or perhaps, in my more colorful dreams, eliminate the need for buildings altogether and reside in a world of mental architecture which does not punish us that Maurice Blanchot would have planned for us had he visited Niagara Falls or stayed at the Hotel Chelsea. But all this imagination is asking too much of this particular gentle man who believes slowly, surely, and perhaps anecdotally that he has met the real Nancy Spungen, played by your famous sister, who he has been living with for days, weeks on end, maybe even months if he could recall. With my hand on the door I want to shout through it to him (if he has accepted our lord Jesus Christ as his personal savior) that your famous sister, while starring in many colorful roles, has never played Nancy Spungen nor has yet to walk through a plate-glass door like Sid Vicious or Gary Oldman playing Sid Vicious. On the other hand, she does have a good anecdote about meeting Gary Oldman at the imaginary Gehry Museum in Los Angeles, as she shows by taking out her autograph book from her purse and flips to the single page with Gary Oldman’s signature on it, including the bloody thumb-print.
As you and I would expect under her duress, this is where your sister begins her long reminiscing about her Gary Oldman encounter, his generous yet unassuming physical attributes, the melodious amber-like quality of his voice which, over time, has become more and more gentle and Americanized and not of a violent alcoholic household in London where he grew up, and how he calmly instructed you to stop the bleeding by applying firm yet gentle pressure with the makeshift tourniquet he fashioned out of an expensive Italian silk kerchief and applied to her hand—an unexpected gesture made more incomprehensible to you by your famous sister finding the autograph book in her purse with her one good hand and having Gary Oldman sign it before the hair-free person who was likely his agent pushed him along before the ambulance arrived, but not before the security arrived. The gentle man listens to this explanation carefully, jealously, but not acquiescently, holding your famous sister’s damaged hand and looking at the signature of a Gary Oldman he never fully understood and appreciated until now, until Sid Vicious. The Gary Oldman he only knew before as an incorruptible police lieutenant who later becomes commissioner in an aberrant, self-loathing city would always have been a gentle man such as himself, though he does not find this paradigm shift an altogether disturbing prospect for some reason.
So Gary Oldman is your ur-friend, the gentle man finally says after a much dramatic pause as Sid and Nancy comes to a complete end for the countless time with Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen cozying up in the afterlife reunion.
Your famous sister smiles. She is very pleased with this observation and agrees quickly, perhaps not too quickly, but quickly enough all the same so that he knows he has pleased her in an unexpected, fulfilling way which successful couples are known to reciprocate with each other, something that neither he nor your famous sister are accustomed to, and he secretly thanks the signature of Gary Oldman for this breakthrough while, at the same time, the bloody thumb-print makes his skin itch. No longer is their relationship solely dictated by Sid and Nancy but by the kinship of Gary Oldman as sidewalk humanitarian and philanthropist which the gentle man can now recognize as though he were one who puts his hand on the door of an apartment belonging to whom he knows not in a building he never wanted to enter, and soon, very soon, his feet touches the ice with your famous sister in the last darkness he may know, walking, speaking in the anecdotes of one who must entertain his lover, continually tell his lover interesting stories, or risk losing that lover in a building with no rooftop but many doors to exit from. Your famous sister lets go of the gentle man’s hand so she may reclaim the autograph book from him. She has chosen these doors before with many prospective ur-friends in Los Angeles before her discharge, but not the anecdotal Gary Oldman who saved her from bleeding to death in front of the Gehry Museum if it actually exists outside of Gary Oldman’s mind before security arrived—a true ur-friend indeed.
If only she had his phone number. Just to thank him again, of course.
Since I am neither famous nor particularly anecdotal, I cannot walk through the door or consider walking through the door or even imagine what lies beyond the door when the gentle man and your famous sister stop talking, when the thin voices all cease. Since I am sensible and sense-ridden, I know when to remove my hand from the door, when to leave the hallway, and when to walk out of a building once I have no further reason to be there. Since I am all these things and possibly more, I do not particularly enjoy being alone when I have no particular reason to be alone while the gentle man and your famous sister are not alone and possibly more in all things.
I return to our place with a greasy take-out pizza, which we eat quietly, passively, but not humbly with the windows open, the summer night, the sirens. You are not pleased with me yet. I have no actual tales for you involving colorful roles. Your famous sister is not here eating with us.
I appreciate that you always kept an eye on her, I imagine you will tell me much later in our own afterlife reunion which, sadly, resembles Virgil and Dante more than Sid and Nancy, insofar as we will not touch each other until the explanations are all exhausted, the sinners punished, the ne’er-do-wells languishing in purgatory, and the virtuous rewarded for their gentle works. Which circle of the incorporeal comedy we will find your famous sister in all this, I try telling you before we abandon all hope, I really do not know: there are no circles in the afterlife reunion, says Gary Oldman, only a place where Sid Vicious eats his greasy pizza alone, waiting for Nancy Spungen to arrive. I think perhaps your famous sister will keep herself in this one building a little while longer with the gentle man who now sees Sid and Nancy as the cultural and philosophical touchstone as she understands it. Certain movies give us a false hope like that, to be sure. Yet this false hope is the last darkness you and I now move through with the thin televisional voices silenced, the radiological murmurings hushed, and the conversation of countless anecdotes about your famous sister, about the gentle man, even about Gary Oldman are brought to an abrupt and worthy end we would expect of successful couples who are known to reciprocate with each other, such as Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen in the afterlife reunion of Sid and Nancy. They forgive each other, knowing that there are people such as Gary Oldman and your famous sister who illuminate the message of their own lives so that we may put our hand on the door and feel their voices which will never belong to us, I want to tell you, holding you with more than hands, but desiring telling your famous sister instead.
Something not in the equality but of the pure, the enjoyment, you of name Nancy.
A blindness could be in the thin voices I press my hand to, in you in being her.
You do not see the Sid Vicious who walks through the plate-glass door but through the Gary Oldman the gentle man wishes would sign what his name would be if I could draw my hand from the door your famous sister stands behind, waiting for me, I see, wanting nothing, no voices.
There are yet voices your sister would make famous for America, one at a time, one in the stairwell, walking to the rooftop, one in the afterlife reunion, one on the sidewalk, not walking, and bleeding, all blood and signature but a thin voice getting less thin.
On the page that follows Gary Oldman.
The gentle man who thinks your sister is Nancy Spungen and he is Sid Vicious as Sid Vicious was who deserved not to walk up eighteen flights of stairs but to die instead as Gary Oldman does not die but as Nancy Spungen must because she is not a gentle woman who has doors held open for her but is pushed off a rooftop of a building she was never supposed to enter because Sid Vicious either kills her or does not kill her at the Hotel Chelsea, according to Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious, with a knife never found in the afterlife reunion of her abdomen reduced to the thinning fame of a movie watched over and over and less and less and never again in the memory of the gentle man who once knew the gentle woman who played Nancy Spungen and knew all the famous actors of her time in her sleep where she found the knife and certain fame walking one at a time through the plate-glass door with the gentle man who is no longer a gentle man.
You and I stare at the signature of the gentle man as Sid Vicious who believes he is Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious. You stare at the signature longer than me, holding my hand, pouring over every word in the letter carefully, continuously, but not comprehendingly, though I have already deciphered its general significance despite that it is not addressed to me but you instead, despite that letter-writing, it is said, is something of a lost or dying art, despite that letters do not bring gentle news anymore but violent alcoholic tidings from that last darkness he will know of what has happened to your famous sister. The voluminous tears which are yours this time streak down the page, taking some of the ink with it, dropping with a pit-pit on your jeans though with you unaware of it, and I watch the pit-pit on your leg start and swell and grow with each separate pit falling off the page until you become aware of it and harmlessly swipe the stain, which only makes it worse.
Sid Vicious may have never cried once in his life with the exception of leaving his mother’s womb, though, if Sid and Nancy can be believed, Nancy Spungen cried often and with intensity far into adulthood, never knowing a gentle man in her life but violent alcoholic types not far removed from Gary Oldman, regardless of their profession, awards won, or their propensity for walking through plate-glass doors. And Sid Vicious may have never written a letter in his life—not that I would have expected him to write one. Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious may have gone much longer without writing a letter so he could fully prepare for his role and capture the violent alcoholic style of Sid Vicious, imagining a gentle man who is not and never was a gentle man write and write and write and not write a single word of use or poetry or coherence but a letter continuing on and on about how Nancy Spungen died and that he did not mean to do it but really sort of did but just kind of, like, lost control of it all and himself and all he wanted was a gentle woman to take care of him but instead he got Nancy Spungen or someone he thought was Nancy Spungen who would not throw him off the roof of a building or follow him through the plate-glass door or listen to his blood go pit-pit on the floor of a building he never wanted to enter without Nancy Spungen in his afterlife reunion, do you bloody well get that, fucking signed, Sid.
You and I touch the letter. The bloody well thumb-print which is also anonymous. For the moment, at least.
I wonder why. Why is my imagination not rougher, more vulgar than this Sid Vicious who is now the gentle man your famous sister knew finally, lastly, but not gently, and who is writing from a building he may never leave except for the afterlife reunion with your famous sister who bears a passing resemblance to Nancy Spungen. If you forgive this gentle man who believes he is Sid Vicious, then I may forgive Gary Oldman for believing his violent alcoholic acting style would create every Sid Vicious known before there was such a person called Sid Vicious. I want to tell you this, to explain while we sit on our sofa in our place in the city, but I do not. You are still trying to clean the watery ink from your jeans with your hand compulsively, obsessively, but not successfully, and I take this unsuccessful hand of yours to make you stop if only briefly so you may hear the thin voices outside gathering in the longest of hallways you and I will travel down together just to hear him speak to whom he believes your famous sister is.
At the Hotel Chelsea, Your Dreams Are Only a Body Bag
While Writing at the Hotel Chelsea what would be his only unpublished novel, Maurice Blanchot obsesses over an anonymous bloody thumb-print. A thumb-print he finds on the white ceramic coffee cup he drinks from in the lobby during the morning of the commotion. The coffee cup which will sit in his room, unwashed, unwashable. Almost famous.
The obsession I allow him flies in the face of classic etiquette of hospitality. His initial inclination towards this gross violation of it—which is also the first violation of any kind visited upon him in New York—is to return the coffee, even upbraid the front desk in vigorous Parisian fashion, the only fashion he knows. He does neither. He keeps sipping the coffee carefully (still very hot from an unseen carafe which likely doesn’t exist) so he can continue mulling over the enigma of the thumb-print, whose blood comprised it, and why he has accepted its totality for reasons other than memento mori by bringing it back to his room and leaving it on his desk for the duration of his stay.
Cheapness alluring, he thinks. Earliest souvenir.
Maurice Blanchot, author of Death Sentence and Thomas the Obscure, forced into being a gentle man who may no longer be a gentle man. By a coffee cup. A potential crime scene trinket. This will bother him later as he walks back up three flights of stairs to his room.
This bothers you at present.
A hotel, any hotel, every hotel may be a place where gentle men and gentle women who no longer wish to be gentle reside in a false perpetuity orchestrated by a failed American etiquette itself. The Hotel Chelsea is not that kind of a hotel. It is not any kind of a hotel, as our upstairs neighbor keeps insisting to us.
Unwashed, unwashable. Almost famous.
You don’t want to believe this gross violation of etiquette.
Of course you complain the picture I commence developing is doomed to incompleteness without your famous sister’s input, who claimed to us once that she had stayed there with someone almost famous, which is a distinct possibility knowing her. You, on the other hand, never claimed to have stayed there, other than what you experienced as a teenager repeatedly watching Sid and Nancy with her. You also have never seen Blanchot’s face, relying on descriptions provided by the sighing, aborted desires of our upstairs neighbor in the laundry room and my blatant fact-killing thus far. And the face always construes a powerful device for you—more so than the violent alcoholic acting style of Gary Oldman. More so than a coffee cup with an anonymous bloody thumb-print on it. More so than an idea of the famous Hotel Chelsea I could convey in ten thousand unpublished novels. More so than desire mixed with falsehood from never being there.
But that is how, at least, I may help you recover from the loss of your famous sister: no guest can be satiated at the Hotel Chelsea with a lingering, unconscious desire to write one’s self into place for as long as etiquette reigns where none exists, not as long as the aberrant city multiplies itself building by building, fills itself more and more with gentle men who wish they could be the same young man in a black leather jacket whom Blanchot watches being led out in handcuffs through the lobby before the body of a young woman in a thick, black plastic bag is wheeled away on a stretcher, an attending detective leaving a white ceramic coffee cup at the front desk as he exits with the victim.
An hour later, Blanchot will be sipping with care the coffee of dubious actuality he had asked for so that his lips avoid touching the thumb-print.
For your discomfort with the eternal, I may also suggest a very late call made to his room prior to the commotion, an initially polite young man who claims to be from the hotel without providing a name or even mentioning the front desk—a scenario you are familiar with from your famous sister’s many attempts at recreating the Hotel Chelsea experience while you and her lived upstate with your civil servant parents. Blanchot, however, doesn’t recognize the set-up, nor the British voice as belonging to anyone downstairs. He eventually understands, as this gentle man who was never a gentle man prattles on about a mistake made with his reservation, that a swindle is being attempted, which amuses him despite the hour because the person is doing it all wrong. He asks the caller whether he has considered the fundamental inequality of this conversation as it pertains to hospitality etiquette of identifying one’s self, of situation, of station and its reciprocity. You do not know my name but know where I am, Blanchot points out in inflected English, which is more than I know about you. The caller admits, in all fairness, this had not occurred to him, though he manages to slip in a tersely worded sentiment regarding Blanchot’s mental capacity and make vulgar reference to a particularity of the female anatomy before hanging up.
Muttering under his breath why, at this hour, he decides to banter with a half-witted scam artist only looking to chisel ten, maybe twenty American dollars at most from this susceptible guest, a charitable Blanchot begins consulting his own guilt. Then a change of heart when the gentle man who was never a gentle man calls him back, refers to him as Frenchy, and proceeds non sequitur into a violent alcoholic diatribe against his lover present in the room, whom Blanchot can hear discernibly whining in the background, drunk if not worse. A tussle ensues for the receiver, supposedly. Dial tone sounds again.
Blanchot decides the fun is over.
The phone jack pulls out with rotted ease from the wall before he drifts off into a dream about a phone jack.
The idea of Blanchot’s traveling, leaving France for awhile, takes a few days to materialize in your thoughts for any number of reasons you and I both are aware of, not the least of these being a general trepidation of a failed American etiquette and becoming a tourist of it. When these two possibilities coalesce, you recoil from me on our sofa in as much pain as the wounding prospect allows—so much so that I almost have him cancel his plane ticket and reservation at the Chelsea, set up for him by a philosopher friend who had stayed there long-term and returned home with much acclaim after his book was published. Not that the Blanchot you and I know seeks the limelight of cultural import. On the contrary, he may think the Chelsea an opportune way to increase his isolation further, which his work commends him for, in secret, once drinks are poured, once the lights are down, once you and I rest our heads on the manuscript given to us by our upstairs neighbor, the pages ready to reward the author if he can find the right vessel for all that is interminable about his life—or, that is, the sense of his life.
The reasons you and I have for not wanting to visit the Hotel Chelsea are different than Maurice Blanchot’s, assuming we believe our upstairs neighbor who knows you and me better than Blanchot, despite her time spent with Blanchot, despite the particulars of her professional relationship with Blanchot, despite that you and I know she has thirteen unpublished manuscripts and a fourteenth being what he supposedly wrote at the Hotel Chelsea, despite everything you and I do not know about Maurice Blanchot. Her own particular brand of fact-killing does not involve searching hallways as I’m accustomed to in my explorations but is a systematic progression of incremental disclosures only in the laundry room of our building, the number and provided detail determined by the clothes she folds in our presence. You speculate she deliberately employs fabric softener sheets to prompt her memory, a device not unlike Marcel Proust’s madeline but closer to Jean Genet’s inhaling the flatulence embedded in his prison blanket instead, the more pleasant harshness of the chemical compositions released into the air after the dryer rings its finish-bell. Pouring onto her lap the steaming, vaporous linens of lavender or lilacs, April or May, she will indulge before us her reminiscing, oh, oh, upon Maurice Blanchot’s body après-shower, especially with that fine Parisian soap he always lathered in, brushing aside her fountainous yellowish white hair at every opportunity.
My narratives, as you know, can only luxuriate in the scent that itself gives off, though Blanchot hardly makes one out for himself at the Hotel Chelsea, and he prefers not to take stock of the lobby in this regard, especially as the police roll the body bag away to the people in another building who handle matters like those involving your famous sister. You and I are often aware that most polite hotels smell like our upstairs neighbor’s fabric softener, lavender or lilacs, April or May; then, upon stepping into a room, any room, every room, that scent will disappear. All Maurice Blanchot can be left with is neutral air, skirted with the unfamiliar scents of its former inhabitants he detects with slight disapproval as various body odors dissipate upon the arrival of a new guest.
The sheer ineptitude of his decision makes Blanchot very glad to be here.
He opens his balcony window. He unpacks and sets up his manual typewriter on the desk, waits for the first admirer to knock on his door and recognize the scent of a Maurice Blanchot fresh out of a Hotel Chelsea shower. Resting on the bed while doing so draws his thoughts into delicate, light sketches of an anonymous Futurist painting of the Brooklyn Bridge he had appreciated in the lobby while checking in, the image slowly decomposing in his evaluations, his room included.
The next manuscript does not need the streets of New York. There is no inspiration there, no dialogue pregnant with possibilities, no characters who ask for characterizing, no anecdote that needs immediate sharing, especially his own. There are only gentle men who may no longer be gentle men, like himself, and gentle women who do not hold open doors for him. He considers whether he has made a mistake. He welcomes the mistake which he has no control over. The only way to live in an aberrant city is to be antagonized by it continuously, frequently, but not endlessly, that the terminus of hatred and self-loathing is the unexpected revelation, the empty epiphany which constitutes recognition of the disaster to befall everyone in time, such as a young woman wheeled out in a body bag. At this conclusion, he starts feeling better in a Maurice Blanchot kind of way. There is surely a hidden avenue, he thinks. Perhaps he is even involved to some degree as he reflects upon the particulars of his phone conversation with the violent alcoholic young man, the annoying voice of the young woman.
The next manuscript needs the rooms of the Hotel Chelsea.
Most of all, our upstairs neighbor adds while folding her suit pants, he remembers that moment his fondness for stories of buildings where nothing appears to happen.
Architecture of every kind sends him around the hotel during the afternoons, counting the number of stairs between floors, discovering which rooms are the most asked for. His morning typewriting and lobby newspaper reading habits are given a rest as he finds opportunities to commiserate with the almost famous guests, to ask them about the habits of the young couple which caused the recent commotion, and thus confirm the elevated position of this building he harbors great suspicions about. The guests often deflect his inquiries with sidelong glances at the paintings in the lobby—they are fucking tired of talking about those two assholes, he senses with his imperfect grasp of English in the local patois. They would rather view the works of a defied conversational etiquette, by far a more interesting prospect than discussing a broken young man in a black leather jacket whose ten thousand stories now circulating this hotel and its intellectual circles about his condition in another building meander into the oft-repeated and seldom reliable. Far too familiar, they decry, and resign themselves to wait for the inevitable if not justice, which is what all of us ever really deserve—though Blanchot is uncertain if this young couple deserves the inevitable, which is still something. Like justice. No one really deserves that, if anything. No one can ever really punish themselves when the forces beyond their control refuse punishment. Really.
An anonymous bloody thumb-print is a terrible way to be acquainted with a hotel.
A basement room at an alluringly cheap hotel not believing itself to be alluringly cheap where a gentle man who was never a gentle man lives with a gentle woman who was never a gentle woman.
The typing continues for three straight days. No guests enter his room, no one is offered a drink or a few moments of philosophical respite from the world of lobby newspapers—no one, nothing but a manuscript.
He thinks it is inevitable that he won’t be leaving for awhile.
Pages start accumulating on the desk, next to the shabby vintage lamp which barely works unless he jiggles the switch repeatedly, next to his his watch, his best fountain pen.
An unwashed, unwashable coffee cup sends him ahead the room.
Maurice Blanchot dreams of dead bodies in his room very carefully because this is the room of Maurice Blanchot I am talking about.
He thinks he can hear breathing in (this) dream, slow, insistent, not his own.
There is no dreaming in the way gentle men and gentle women, like you and me, who have never stayed at the Hotel Chelsea dream of dead bodies as horrible and insistent, as though they are friends who left us long ago and now return to provide comfort of the eternal. In the dreams of Maurice Blanchot is an ur-friend for commiseration, and, as such, he dreams of it as the excrescence from his current writing, signed with the seal of an anonymous bloody thumb-print, ten thousand eyebrows raising themselves over the specter of someone he has never known or seen or spoken to up until now, as he places his hand carefully on the thick plastic, feeling its unforgiving grasp upon the body inside, and the coldest zipper grumbling in its sleep.
Yet the top flap of the body bag is not rising and falling as one would expect a body’s lungs to expand and contract in the irrationality of dreams. To help confirm this, he places one hand on the top flap—not to unzip the zipper and look, of course, which would be a gross violation of hospitality etiquette—and feels for thin reverberations to come through the thick black plastic, which soon arrive given the young woman’s propensity for her voice to travel longitudinally, screechingly, but not bracingly.
You and I are hardly surprised that Blanchot will not find the young woman in there—in fact, he does not even want to open the bag. He relaxes his grip on its edge and feels reassured about everything, existence, the body, all. He has confirmed the falsity of body bag through etiquette—hence, the young woman’s body—and the falsity of every body bag, giving poor shape to shapelessness, providing false contours, false outlines of the subject it holds, its opaque, dull drudgery. For a few consecutive nights, I have him visit the body bag in this way as the incarnation of the American ur-friend, and he observes himself communicating with it in a language he does not identify—a strange development because he always speaks in French in his dreams, a much better French than you and I have spoken in ours, but this time it is a French spoken as if it were prelapsarian.
He pulls back. Observing a gentle woman who was never a gentle woman aside, towards the back of the room, he nods to her in universal greeting. She, however, does not respond. She never responds, other than smoking a cigarette diligently, calmly, but not respectfully, holding in the same hand a white ceramic coffee cup where the faint outline of blood gathers around the edge of her thumb pressing against its side.
The balcony overlooks the sidewalks of an aberrant city he no longer recognizes while she grasps the strange wrought-iron patterns as though for whatever dear life she has, leaving the coffee cup on his desk, herself also leaving in a pattern of thin televisional and radiological voices outside which, to him, is neither a comfort nor a reassurance of any pattern.
Because the Hotel Chelsea, for Blanchot, cannot exist if not filled with ur-friends.
In a hotel, any hotel, every hotel, a guest is always being carried out when they are discovered, and everyone always wants to be discovered at the Hotel Chelsea. It construes the very antithesis of an actual hotel since staying at a hotel is the antithesis of being almost famous, always being insistent even when his or her presence is shielded to all besides the lonely perverts who wander the hallways late night, some looking for Jesus to enter their heart, some decidedly not, who place their hands on the succession of wooden doors, imagining who may be residing behind them and what they may be doing with their meanwhile with the gentle men and gentle women who no longer wish to be gentle in rooms where wishes are easily granted.
In the midst of occasional not-writing when he is done reading the lobby newspapers or commiserating with the almost famous guests who chat him up on the hotel’s other almost famous guests who are not his immediate concern, in the suspension of every wish of his own, Maurice Blanchot becomes the loneliest pervert not looking for Jesus at the Hotel Chelsea to speak prelapsarian French. He sees that the manuscript he attempts must plumb the depths for new ur-friends in his life, must follow the anonymous bloody thumb-print down the hallway, so that the knowledge may lead to a gentle woman who is no longer a gentle woman who does not occupy a body bag. His walk is calm, assured, particularly for one who understands there is no scent to cover his fine Parisian smell, no carpet in the hallways to muffle his steps and the possibility of almost famous guests he may run into happenstance out in the hallway and who tell him impromptu fragments laced with profane smoke and unfamiliar scents, all the while doing his best not to cough out loud.
In Room 331, he relinquishes the possibility of knowing who resides on this floor with him. There is only the sifting elsewhere. Room 289. Room 477. Various rooms, various floors guests pass through—no, he sees, are allowed to pass through. Room 664. Invited, uninvited. Room 517. All guests granted passage but never going in or out. Room 100. Consumed. Sorted. Dispersed. Himself.
The young man in the black leather jacket, the gentle man who was never a gentle man, is a building where there is no lobby, no coffee, no paintings, no almost famous guests, no room. Except himself.
Putting down his copy of Marguerite Duras, Blanchot gets up from a deeply wounded upholstered chair and wanders over to the balcony doors in his room, opens them. He offers the rain his inspection, measuring its quality, volume, consistency, acidic composition, other intangibles. It isn’t the soft Parisian rain of aquatints but a leadened sort which proves somewhat overbearing to him, the constant want for company that it brings.
Who are his neighbors, he speculates.
Who are neighbors, he asks.
The problem with cockroaches. He wants to like them. For awhile, distracted watching them at a distance in his room, he thinks he does. It piques him how adept they are knowing when they have been made out, the suspension of their movements as calculations are made as to their next course of action, their quickest route of escape—and yet they will never make that move until set upon with a shoe or rolled-up newspaper. If not for this evolutionary shortcoming, he muses, cockroaches may have been the masters of us all, provided they are not already. The proof of this arrives: a little guest brave enough to make its claim to his typed manuscript pile sits there, antennas pointing at Blanchot. Peculiar specimen. Instinctively grabbing the white ceramic coffee cup with the bloody thumb-print and inverting it, he traps the cockroach underneath. Now what will I do with it, he thinks—or what was I planning to do with it if not to have it suffer entrapment. The moment is not lost on him. He does believe, as he goes to sleep that same night, leaving the cup as it is, the little guest is suffering somehow, a suffering not attenuated to loss or even stasis, but being separated from the knowledge of it being discovered, being found by another, for which it must now wait, starve, reconsider, and completely rely on its own conclusions about not only what is happening but what is here as well, what is now.
To walk into a building where, as he was told by the almost famous guests, gentle men who were never gentle men are being detained and questioned:
Which means he will be willing if not able to tell the people there is information regarding a gentle woman who was never a gentle woman killed, whom he has had a chance to depose indirectly, that he has made a connection with her and discovered her bloody thumb-print on a coffee cup, which likely has nothing to do with the circumstances of her death, though perhaps this bit of information, true or not true, helpful or not helpful, could provide clarification to this murder of some cultural importance which renders a gentle man who is no longer a gentle man as an almost famous guest at this building;
Which means he is not entirely certain why he wants to walk into this building or what he hopes to accomplish for himself if not a gentle man who was never a gentle man who does not deserve his help, intercession or mere company, though perhaps he will do this for the sake of entering a strange building that tells him he has no business entering, something akin to a Hotel Chelsea with a security checkpoint, video cameras he has never seen before endlessly scanning and recording, all of which announce the withholding of expecting comfort, privacy, civility, and cultural import;
Which means he enters this building so he may expect the worst in of itself, and let itself be recognized by him, because walking into a building where the worst in of itself may reside means there is hesitation, disbelief, the blank stares at a faulty attempt of non-prelapsarian language so someone at the front desk may grant him access, of what his own scent in this building will be and to realize his mistake of showering before going there and offending the neutral air with a fine Parisian lather;
Which means he should not waste the building’s time so willingly, the person at the front desk will tell him, since: (a) wanting information from the building is a clear breach of protocol, (b) wanting information from the gentle man who was never a gentle man is a clear breach of protocol, (c) saying anything to help a gentle woman who was never a gentle woman, who cannot be helped anymore in any way, who does not reside in this building, is clear breach of protocol;
Which means walking out of a building he never actually enters does not mean leaving it;
Which means walking around several blocks of urban blight to purge external dialogue from his thoughts (he thinks this is an insufficient narrative element anyway);
Which means he should have checked into a hotel where nothing appears to happen but everything does happen, and have been writing in a room where there is no building to speak of but the room itself.
A gentle woman holds the door open at the Chelsea for a gentle man who may no longer be a gentle man. He says nothing to her, having refused to shower for several days.
Returning directly to the typewriter in his room, like all good writers he admires, he is unable to write anything.
As a gentle man who may no longer be a gentle man wanders the hallways of the hotel at night, knowing the scents, knowing all the not so famous guests are sleeping and the almost famous guests think they are sleeping, you want me to lead him out of the building, lead him to the understanding that guests cannot be helped for walking into a building they cannot leave, because you, having never visited the Hotel Chelsea, service the rooms for only one guest. Because you fail to realize the Chelsea is not any kind of a hotel. A hotel filled with little guests. Unlikely. Inescapable. The faint knife of a deleterious existence with routine check-outs and the occasional stray word in the lobby, an unwashed coffee cup, and of waiting, waiting, rapprochement with the other in the room, always another guest, sleeping, typing out notes, no room service, no room without you and me, his neighbors of the everlasting.
Someone in a room on the third floor overheard something else someone in another room said impolite, shouted through the door and radiating out into the hallway, filled with recrimination and obscenity almost comedic, which you and I know from our hallway excursions strangely happens when a din is raised, but this is not the comedy which enters a work of cultural importance at any given moment.
Another guest wakes up, nonplussed, trying to jiggle his nightstand lamp to function, without success.
On his desk, blocked by an inverted coffee cup, a manuscript he has stopped working on. Throwing himself out of bed, neglecting his slippers, he angles himself in the dark toward it. On the first page he finds his little guest still alive (such a slight survivor of that here and now) who promptly scurries off as he raises and smashes the coffee cup on the floor, leaving a jagged piece with an anonymous bloody thumb-print intact.
The abrupt coldness of the floor he treads tightens off the blood in his toes. He wraps the piece in a kerchief, places it in his luggage. He notices the shouts have stopped now, yet there remain footsteps which sound in the hallway outside his door, their approaching filling the quiet of his room, and another scent he finally recognizes.
Maurice Blanchot says the room of Maurice Blanchot is where you and I must bring an end to a room, any room, every room.
There will be a morning where you and I may gather the pages, we have been told, Maurice Blanchot wrote for his unpublished novel, provided to us by our upstairs neighbor, attempted at the famous Hotel Chelsea with a manual typewriter, the thinning, pressed script of a language against a mere vapor of paper-stock barely registering beyond my looking past a coffee cup I drink from.
You may tell her, then, after my narrative, you don’t believe Blanchot wrote this manuscript.
At first you will struggle translating the peculiar French while our upstairs neighbor looks on, smiling at us in a way which smiles are unreadable, and remark how the words barely convey their subject.
You understand well enough, however, that there is something resembling a story.
The story is set in a hotel. Later, it is discovered not to be a hotel. Interiority abounds. What little action there is set at a hotel that is not really a hotel revolves around a gentle man who is no longer a gentle man and a gentle woman who is no longer a gentle woman who could be his most gentle lover, albeit in the strangest possible way, along with a third party of indeterminate origin, an interloper whose connection to the other two principal characters is undefined, the triangle unmistakable.
So that their story may be told over and over to future guests, the interloper wants to take both of their thumb-prints in blood, convinced that this documentation is the only way to rebuild the hotel into an actual hotel, which you have significant reservations about since the narrator has the interloper transgress all normal expectations of how a hotel operates. Regardless, the actual hotel will remain thanks to the documentation. The other guests who are not gentle will all become gentle again. The face of the interloper, if you squint at the language on the pages long enough, if you had repeatedly watched Sid and Nancy with your famous sister, if you want to believe the dreams you had in tandem with your famous sister about the afterlife reunion, will resemble a young Gary Oldman in his prime—but you don’t say any of this to our upstairs neighbor.
You will want to tell her instead that you don’t believe she wrote this manuscript, either.
She likely finishes folding her laundry without a rejoinder, still smiling.
Waiting for our collaborative delicates to finish drying, you and I will watch her depart the laundry room in an impolite turn of yellowish white hair, her long, abortive sigh left behind for our usual edification which, with lavender or lilacs, April or May, follows her out into the hallway, and away to another apartment, another room upstairs only seen for ourselves in an unpublished novel that you must secretly fear for the sake of those who no longer visit us at night.
Forrest Roth’s work has appeared in NOON, Denver Quarterly, Juked, Caketrain, The Collagist, and other journals. He is the author of a novella, Line and Pause (BlazeVOX Books), a prose poem chapbook, The Sullen Pages (Little Red Leaves), and a novel, Gary Oldman Is a Building You Must Walk Through (What Books Press), which was also a semi-finalist for the Noemi Press 2015 Book Contest in Fiction. He received his Creative Writing Ph.D. from University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Marshall University in West Virginia.
Image: New York Magazine
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