(an excerpt from the novel The Hotel of Irrevocable Acts, out now from Autonomedia/Unbearable Books)
Vince pulled into a gas station and used the phone. The next thing was to drive by a wooded area near the old Carter house, about three miles down US 30, then pull over by an access road. We did that, opened the back, pulled out a bundle of gear, and tossed it in the trees along with an extension ladder. I stayed there while the Petefish drove back to the big intersection.
There was a twenty-four-hour Waffle House truck stop restaurant, a twenty-four-hour gas station, and a Jewel food store open until midnight. It was a little after ten. We had decided to park the car in the Jewel lot where it wouldn’t seem conspicuous until 12:30 or so, and we certainly hoped to be done by then. It was likely somebody would be watching the restaurant lots. And besides, all the parking lots on the west side of the highway sort of ran together —Jewel, Mays Department Store, Cinema 3—no one could really tell where you were or what you were doing.
It must have been about 10:30. Vince took the junk bike out of the car when no one was looking, and rode it around to the roadside. Then he parked the car closer to the storefront. What he did after that I could only surmise. It should have taken him less than fifteen minutes to ride the bike back to where I was. He probably stayed off the highway as much as possible. He was worried about getting hit. “People are always dying down here,” he said. It was true—guys died there all the time. But it wasn’t on bicycles.
Meanwhile I had already gutted the bundle, spilling out rope, twine, wire cutters, hacksaw, flashlights, a glasscutter, and several small bags. I was sitting in the darkness in the woods. I hadn’t seen him coming when he rode straight up on me and pretended to crash into a tree. Any other time it might have been funny.
We had dark clothes on and snappy little newsboy caps. We’d shopped at Amvets two days before in order to dress properly for our parts. I saw Vince put the gun in his pocket but I didn’t say anything. We pulled nylon stockings over our heads even though there wasn’t supposed to be anyone home. Still, why take chances. But I had hay fever and I was sneezing all the time, so I took mine off.
We floundered around in the woods awhile. Then we crept along the gravel drive to the house. The only thing I really remembered about it was the single lighted window in the upstairs room. I had turned the place into a mysterious Victorian mansion in my memory, a place whose halls echoed eternally with the creaking of a rocking chair. I was sure it would be like that—so I made it that way. The pressure of my obsession made it that way. The cliche was the reality. The light was on in that room on the third floor.
Vince saw me seeing it. Then he saw it, too. “They have to keep it on,” he said. “It’s written in the code for old spooky houses.” I just smiled. I was way ahead of him.
“Don’t worry, I’m certain she’s out of town—the gallery said she’d be out east. I called pretending to be a journalist and they said she’ll be back next Sunday. The cops aren’t going to come around the first night, especially Friday, when they’ll be chasing drunks, and I know she doesn’t live with anybody.”
Also Vince had rung the number several times from the phone booth back at the gas station just to make sure.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, fingering the chloroformed rag and the can of spray mace I had in my pocket. There was a motorcycle but no car in the driveway. There was a car parked in the yard, an old Dodge, but that was probably always there. Another part of the code for old houses, Vince said. I wondered if these codes might be blurring our sense of danger.
We dragged our shit around to the southwest side of the house. We would go in through a second-story window. I had taken care to spray-paint the ladder a flat dark green to blend with the paint of the house, which was also green. I would climb up and cut the glass, something I had been practicing all week, then I would open the window and climb in. Vince would follow, then we would use a rope to lower the ladder back down so it couldn’t be seen. I don’t know why we didn’t just smash the glass and go in on the ground floor, but Vince said there might be an alarm and this way we could cut the wire before opening the door from the inside.
It didn’t look to me like the kind of place that had an alarm, but I indulged his concern.
The plan went something like this: Once in the house we would quickly check everything out, find the studio, the paintings and whatever might be worth something, all the while stuffing money and jewelry into our pockets, figuring forty-five minutes to an hour at most to get it done. The Petefish would stay in the woods and bundle the stuff together while I rode the bike back and got the car, then pick him up with the stuff and shoot to the Calumet and back to the city. Easy.
That forty-five-minutes-to-an-hour part was going to be the hardest.
We weren’t saying much by this point. My bones felt like powdered milk, kind of sweet and chalky. My pants felt cold. Each rung of the ladder took me about twenty minutes. I looked back at the Petefish and his eyes glowed yellow. His teeth showed green. I cut a half moon in the glass in front of the latch, but it wasn’t popping out like it was supposed to. I pushed harder. Then suddenly a crack ran like a lightning flash all the way up the pane—the half moon popped out, then half the window glass slid down on my hand like a guillotine. I saw my family, my old home in Indiana, my dog, a baseball game, the place we used to go for vacation, and blood everywhere. Then I realized I hadn’t been cut because my hand was wrapped in canvas. I didn’t remember doing that, but I was glad I did.
There was little noise other than the thunderstorm and, of course, the car crash on the tape loop repeating itself in my head. Still I couldn’t get the window open. Something was holding it. I pushed up, down, sideways. There was nothing holding it. It slid open.
I waited for the alarm. There wasn’t one. I climbed into some sort of den or reading room full of little statues, books, a few stuffed animals on plaques—not moose or deer or anything so macho, but weasels and snakes, things lower to the ground. Their eyes stared glassily at my flashlight. Then I thought I heard something. I was hoping there wouldn’t be any dogs. I was sure there wouldn’t be any dogs. We’d asked around. There were no dogs. Imelda Hopper hated dogs. Fine.
There was a bust of a man on a twisting pedestal that looked like a tree and there was a stench in the room and a humming noise. Then the Petefish tumbled through the window. He hadn’t waited for my signal, but then, of course, I had forgotten to give the signal.
“Fuck, Jack, what the hell!” I saw him staring beyond me toward the door. It was closed but a man stood inside it. And at his feet was a dog, a German shepherd. Vince ran his flashlight up and down the motionless figures. The man was a mannequin, that was easy. And the dog was dead. Vince kicked it. It was dead. That would account for the smell in the room and the humming fly sounds.
The mannequin was painted with what looked like esoteric tribal designs. “I am painting mannequins now, with esoteric tribal designs.” I remembered reading that in the paper. I had read that in the interview. Yes—that was the case. I wouldn’t think any more about it. Then I thought, “This is going to be shit.” But I thought I was half joking. Then I thought, “Why the dead dog?” But of course, I knew why, I just couldn’t put it in words. It was part of the code, too, somehow—the code that seemed to be dictating this event, raising the stakes.
“What are you talking about? This is a piece of cake.” Vince opened the door slow to make sure nobody was around. “Let’s get moving. We got a lot of looking to do.”
It was supposed to be a clean operation. Hit fast and get out. Now it looked like it would be impossible not to get sidetracked. Vince showed his flashlight around. It stopped on a box of rat poison, then on a painting, then on a small bronze statue. It all looked like junk. It was impossible to tell what was worth anything and what was nothing. “Look at that! There’s something!” he said.
Indeed, there was something there, but it didn’t mean anything to me. I went over to have a look but the Petefish stopped me. “Wait. We gotta check out the rest of the house.” Okay. Then I slipped in some slime that had oozed out of the dog’s stomach and fell against the door. But Vince hadn’t seen me—good. I wanted him to believe in my competence. They say that’s a good thing in situations like this.
“All right, a quick look up here, then we go downstairs.”
I think there were four rooms upstairs: the study, two bedrooms, and a sort of TV/drawing room. All were cluttered with unrelated paraphernalia: porcelain tchotchkes, postcards, magazines, innumerable knickknacks, a few paintings. Ribbons and rags hung from some of the walls. If you flicked a switch somewhere something often moved somewhere else but you weren’t supposed to worry about it. To go through each room thoroughly would have taken hours so we just made quick mental pictures and left the doors open. The studio was the main thing.
The place was filthy with dust, mold. I thought I could hear mice every time we disturbed something. In one room, the bed had a box of cookies on it that had been reduced to crumbs. There was an open can of beans and a carton of sour milk with blue mold, a box of chocolates on the floor, and breakfast cereal, some super sweet kid’s stuff. Things had been chewed up and spread pretty much all around. A Siamese cat lay dead on the bedclothes. It looked like it had died pawing the sheets, trying to retrieve the scent of some lost owner locked in the fabric. Then I remembered the box of rat poison prominently displayed in the parlor. It made sense. Somebody had poisoned all these pets that weren’t supposed to be here in the first place, as if they were helping us out, giving us some slack for our bad planning.
Suddenly I had to use the toilet. “Don’t flush it,” Vince implored, “we don’t want to make any noise.” I thought we had already made some noise, but obedience was a form of relief in this case. I guess it usually is. A bust of St. Somebody watched while my bowels moved like a fire hose, then refusing to believe they were empty, they moved some more. There was no toilet paper so I used a towel, wadded it up and stuffed it in the wastebasket. I took a long drink from the bottle in my pocket. Vince didn’t know about the bottle.
While I was busy, he had already stuffed a number of things into his canvas bag. At the head of the stairs where I met him, stood a large gaudy clock, some fake French thing with little angels and devils crawling all over it. It was 11:30 and we were behind schedule.
“Welcome back. We’ve been waiting so long. Will you stick around this time?”
“What?” I said.
“What did you say?” he said.
“I didn’t say anything. Why?”
I thought it had been him.
“Quit talking to yourself,” he said. “You’re freaking me out.”
I wanted to go downstairs, but I was afraid. It seemed like passing through a gauntlet of theater props—all those rubber noses and leather masks turning at a single moment. Vince was at the bottom of the stairs looking back when the clock struck, sounding just once—11:30.
Time was passing. My brain felt like wet bread. A funny milky substance came out of my nose. All my organs were squirming and turning as if to get deeper inside and further away from my skin. And looking back I think maybe I was dead in some alternative way. But I don’t know if I felt that way at the time or if it was more an afterthought.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said, turning to the Petefish who was staring at the cord in his hand. I didn’t know if he pulled it or not. I didn’t know why those things moved like that. I didn’t know anything.
“Did you do that?”
“Relax, will you?”
We were in the main room now. There were months’ worth of newspapers and magazines, a bicycle, cheap African statues, art deco lamps, and various tacky items like a porcelain penny-bank where you stuck the coin in someone’s ass. There were Japanese wind-up monsters and mechanical electrical monsters. There were empty bottles and a lot of pornography. All part of the code, I kept telling myself.
In another room was a tableau that resembled a dinner party for one. The chair was empty. There was some sliced spam, canned milk and crackers, but the food was all untouched.
The reproductions Hopper worked with were all around the room. There were prints of symbolist and surrealist paintings, some abstract stuff, and old romantic pictures of religious scenes and landscapes. There were lots of old maps, too. I opened the closet door in the hallway, but it was full of plaster heads and plastic body parts. I shut it. Then I heard a whisper and a low whistle and I looked down the hall to see the Petefish with his head in another door. He was motioning to me.
The room was some sort of den or parlor with a bed and some photo equipment. In the bed there were two more mannequins. One looked like a mostly naked angel with painted pubic hair and brilliant lipstick-red nipples. The other was got up like a satyr it seemed. He was lying on his stomach, his fake fur pants were pulled down, and his ass was stained in a dark tobacco color. Things were starting to stray a bit from the ‘old-houses code’ that had been so comfortable up to now. So when Vince went down the hall, I followed him.
The last room of the ground floor was huge, and it looked like the studio because of the streaks and blobs of colors thrown all over the walls in a sick way, like vomited paint. I even think Imelda Hopper had once said in some interview that when you throw up it is because you’re getting the chaos out of you. I suppose that’s one of the pleasures of this kind of painting—a sense of relief.
There were several canvases in various states of being worked on. There were cans of paint, sponges, animal parts, bones, electrical equipment, armatures, partially assembled limbs, pages torn out and painted on. The piece we came for, The Octopus, was also there. The arms were moving around making a scraping sound, just like I had read it was supposed to.
“All right! Let’s get it down and get out of here,” I said, pulling the plug. Neither one of us wondered why it was plugged in.
The Petefish was already jockeying with it but it wouldn’t come off the hooks. Then he turned and posed.
“Hey take a picture of me.” I don’t know why, but he had had a camera in his pocket and he was waving it around.
“Give me the wire cutters, then,” he said.
“Be careful, you’ll rip it.” Of course, by then we both knew it would never fit into the car anyway. The painting hung above an old-fashioned camelback couch. On another couch, across the room, a woman was sleeping. She had a funny plastic penis strapped to her nose and there was blood on it. Ha-ha, I thought.
The wall between the couches held a framed mirror. I was watching the Petefish struggle with the painting, the scene being repeated in the clear water of the mirror.
“Give me the wire cutters.”
“Just lift it off the hooks, why don’t you?” I said, holding the mirror frame in my hands. I don’t know why I was holding the mirror. The mirror was a square. Maybe I wanted something there. Inside the mirror things had definition and purpose, but no effect. All our neurotic polluted actions became just clean brave gestures in that empty room. It was completely nonjudgmental. And it would all disappear the moment we were gone. No regrets. No guilt. No consequences.
“Give me the wire cutters.”
I saw the Petefish look in the mirror, and into my face. He climbed down from the couch and came up behind me then, taking off his shirt, revealing the tattoo of a black Chinese fish he had gotten so many years ago. I think he said it was New Orleans, or maybe Hong Kong—I couldn’t remember. The fish angled down from his shoulder and used his left nipple for its eye. The image was executed in fine blue-black lines. The lighted sides and the sharp teeth swam on the surface of his muscle as he raised his hands to my shoulders.
He pressed his body against my back, his head moving behind mine, until the four arms of this creature we had become began to make graceful Hindu-like dance moves of some symbolic resonance. I even heard appropriate music. Posing thusly, we made our desperate bid for it, whatever ‘it’ was, love or glory or eternal beauty, and while we did so, a painted ugly universe howled and beat at the sanctuary borders, demanding we return to the crime at hand. I stepped back. I saw the Petefish climb down from the couch.
“Give me the wire cutters, man. Quit daydreaming. I can’t get this thing off the wall.”
“Lift the frame up! Here I’ll help you. We don’t need . . .”
Then, as if to interrupt that youthful idea of not needing anything, the woman with the plastic penis who had been sleeping peacefully on the couch sat up.
Carl Watson is the author of Beneath the Empire of the Birds, among many others.