by Paul Sohar
Wax figures are the last thing you’d expect to find in the Castle Hotel of Budapest, especially hidden in an elevator, but that’s the best explanation I can come up with for the strange encounter I had on a recent stay in this very respectable and renowned institution. Either that, or they were a couple of actors pretending to be wax figures in order to allay suspicion; the youngish man with skimpy dark beard wearing similarly dark shirt and pants and the youngish woman similarly attired and having short but straggly dark hair. They were waiting in the lift, as they call it there, in either corner by the door so that I could not see them until I got in and turned to push number 5 to my floor. The youngish man was standing by the button panel, partially obstructing it, but I could still see that no button was lit up, the youngish couple were not going anywhere. Or going wherever. It looked fishy to me, but somehow I felt obliged to stay.
Why? It was only the proper thing to do. And the grand Castle Hotel is a proper place.
It was close to midnight, and the cavernous lobby was empty except for a tall skinhead young man at the receptionist desk, staring silently at the computer like a mummified Buddhist monk. He did not move, did not take his eyes off the screen when I entered through one of the three grand entrances and made my way all the way to the left corridor where a bank of elevators was located. The hike through that abandoned space, that huge lobby that is usually dotted with tourists crisscrossing it or standing around in small groups with cameras and small bags slung over their shoulders, all of them enveloped in a low buzz, was now empty and frozen in cryptic silence. The absence of any other living being made that luxuriant environment seem abandoned, ready for demolition or examination by archaeologists, and it made me feel like an impostor, even an intruder who was desecrating that grand temple of chic living and abusing his privilege of admittance. And that privilege was temporary, very much so, a crumb so to speak from the table the literary establishment that grudgingly tolerates my existence on its periphery, and the other crumb was a sumptuous dinner with a name author— the reason for my late return to my digs in a light-hearted yet appreciative and respectful mood.
It was in this state of mind that I stepped through the door of the idle elevator that was waiting open for me and found myself on the stage of a drama – or a potential drama? The thought crept into my increasingly uneasy mind. The stage was all set for something unexpected to happen, but nothing was happening when I turned around to confront the inexplicable situation. At that point I still had time to step out and wait for another elevator, which would have been the prudent thing to do; I still had time to cancel my appearance in the drama whose script had not been revealed to me, but the circumstances were unusual that evening, and I let down my usual guard.
Perhaps it didn’t even occur to me to be on my guard, not until the drama was already on. And it was I who unwittingly raised the curtain. As I said at first it seemed to me there was nothing happening when I entered the elevator and turned around to face the two other guests standing there with no button lit up on the panel, no floor indicated as their destination. Perhaps they had forgotten their room number and were busy trying to remember which floor it was on. Not an unreasonable assumption. But they were just standing there like wax figures, saying nothing to each other, making no move of any kind. Nothing was happening. Not even a flicker rippled across their faces, not even a blink disturbed the blankness of their eyes. Maybe they needed more time to make up their minds, I thought and decided to act out my part.
“Excuse me,” I leaned over and reached out with a hand between the man and the control panel to push the button to my floor. Number 5 was immediately lit up by a red circle around it. But the door was taking its time to respond; in retrospect it could be said I still had time to pull out of an increasing intensifying scene, but destiny forced me to stay and act the part in which it had cast me.
The pair, or I should say the youngish man stationed in front of the control panel, still did not move, still did not lift a finger to a button to choose a floor, although I thought I caught an exchange of a hardly perceptible signal between the youngish man and the youngish woman; it seemed to me the man gave a slight nod toward his partner who responded with a possible turn of the head expressing something between an assent and an I-don’t-care message.
The door closed with the usual few seconds’ delay which was repeated before the cab started to move off the Ground Floor. No possibility of an exit for me. The drama had commenced. I could sense the upward movement as a heavy straight jacket descending on my shoulders and chest. From that moment on I was to be a helpless participant – if not victim – in the slowly unfolding drama, and as such I could already see myself with a bloody face on the floor, relieved of my wallet and all my papers, more dead than alive. From that moment on every moment stands out in my mind like a tableau in a medieval fresco.
We’re approaching the 1st floor. Still no move on the part of the two other guests who stand there like wax figures planted there as a prank to frighten late night visitors. On closer scrutiny they don’t look like typical hotel guests but more like a couple who had wandered in off the street, too young for tourist and too old for the international youth festival whose participants jammed the bus on my way home to the hotel. Two aimless druggies? Made of frozen wax? Still nothing. Where are they going? Are they following me? Are they planning to get off on the 5th floor and follow me in the corridor to my room? If they do, I can do nothing about it, they have a right to get off where they please and walk anywhere they please. When they push their way into my room they can say I invited them in. What can I do?
First Floor. A slight ding says so and the number shows up in the panel above the door. It’s a very slow elevator – lift as they say in Europe – or by some bylaws of relativity the flow of time has slowed to a molasses-slow tickle. Or is it moving so fast that it cleaves a painful opening in my brain exposing it to images not normally accessible to it. On relative scale of time anything is possible, because motion measures its own time; for instance, there’s plenty of time for these two to stop acting like wax figures and jump on me right here, knock me down and rob me of my local i.d. papers, money, credit cards, my cell phone, my room key card, and what else? My life? It’s a good thing I left my US passport in the room. But what if they force their way into my room? Am I getting ahead of my story? No, these thoughts are the links in the story.
Maybe looking a few tableaux ahead, as I am standing here, looking at the backs of my motionless traveling companions, still trying to figure out their next move based on the silent words exchanged between them in the body language. Or am I wrong, and the subtle signals exchanged between them are just instinctive jerks of their hands and facial muscles rather than a well-rehearsed sign language. In other words, they are simply watching each other or sensing each other’s gestures even without watching, they’re exchanging messages through natural demeanor open to anyone to observe but decipherable only by them, because they consciously soft-pedal every move their bodies want to make and diminish them to a hardly perceptible degree.
But I see theirs gestures, because they are standing there without a button activated, directionless, which means their direction is left open to chance and prompted by opportunity. The meaning was obviously clear to them, but unfortunately it enters my consciousness only now when we are already locked into this cab, into this moment of tragic significance, already caught up in the tangles of our various destinies.
First Floor moving on to Second Floor. The man again initiates an exchange, this time by moving his hand, raising it slightly as if to ask a question. The answer is immediately forthcoming and easy to read by anyone: she tilts her head without actually moving it as if to say Yes and no. Yes and perhaps. Perhaps and no. Somehow it’s clear and yet confusing at the same time, or else I am trying to be too precise in my interpretation and end up only confusing myself.
Second Floor. And moving on. The man, still standing on the same spot, now turns or appears to turn to face the woman more directly and in the process inevitably glances at me, sort of halfway, indirectly as I am standing behind them with my eyes on both of them. And the door, of course. I wonder briefly whether a cry for help would be heard by anyone in the building or even in the elevator shafts, both of them fully isolated and soundproofed, most likely, from the rest of the world. Am I totally at the mercy of these two if they are what they appear to be, a team of muggers? They are certainly not guests in the hotel; they have not yet pushed another button on the panel. If they were an ordinary couple on tour, they would be already arguing about their room number and, more importantly, the floor where to get off. But, not a peep from them.
Moving on to Third Floor. The woman, too, changes her pose to turn halfway toward the man, even taking a quick glance at me before looking at her partner with a questioning glare. The man turns back toward the corner for a second, perhaps to give himself more time to think about it, to work out the scenario. But what about me? What am I to think about? What decision can I possibly make concerning my safety? What contribution can I possibly make to the drama slowly grinding our fates together? I have no choice but endure the ride and the beating surely waiting for me, a quick but indispensible jab in the stomach, maybe two or three, as a way of keeping me quiet while the two of them go about their business of going through my pockets.
Fourth Floor. The penultimate ding before mine. Still no overt action on the part of the team, and yet I feel things are accelerating. The woman raises her gaze from the floor to the door and then to her partner as if to give a go-ahead signal – her hardened expression makes the message only too clear – but the man’s gaze doesn’t meet hers, probably intentionally, so as to further evaluate the situation and work out the appropriate strategy. Is it a reprieve for me? My dithers say no.
Fifth Floor. Surely now things are coming to a head. Looks like they’re going to get off with me now and do it in the hallway. It’s a long way to my room, all the way around the building and more. Except perhaps my cries for help will reach more human ears here – provided the muggers don’t choke me before I can squeeze a squeal out my throat.
The last ding and the door opens. I step out as fast as I can and try to make the stride look as natural as I can. Without waiting for the elevator door to close behind me I turn to the left from the elevator and then again left from the bank of elevators to the long corridor with an endless number of rooms, at the end of which I am to turn left again to find my room just a few doors down. Soon I am in the long corridor walking toward my destination, all the time listening for footsteps behind me, but on the thickly carpeted floor a herd of elephants could be following me without me hearing a peep. Don’t look back, act naturally as if nothing suspicious was going on, I keep telling myself all the way down the corridor. Just pretend nothing has happened, nothing is happening and nothing will happen. Better get the room key card out and get it ready, and do it discreetly, without arousing suspicion. Better check and see I have the right side facing me and with the arrow pointing down, so that when I get to the door I’ll be ready to slip it in the slot, get a green light, open the door and slip inside like a ghost. Yes, I have the card in my hand, with the arrow in my sight. All I have to do is now speed up my stride inconspicuously but with determination, so that I get to the end of the corridor before the muggers can see which door I dart to once out of their sight.
But why am I running away from a couple of wax figures? No, I’m not running away from anything, I’m simply making my way to my hotel room, minding my business. Right? Right, of course…
And it helps me to keep saying this. So far so good, I’m at the end of the long corridor, take a left, and the door to my room is in sight. I may have a good chance of getting there unimpeded if I don’t flub it now, if I don’t drop the card or look back and challenge my pursuers. Easy does it, easy does it…
That last moment when I’m about to insert the card into its slot is suddenly inflated into infinity, the image of the door lock forever sharply chiseled into my guts with painful clarity and exalted unreality: the last tableau in this sequence, the one that stands over all the others, that last moment of infinite dimensions is with me beginning with the fleeting moment I enter the building, and it casts a cold, motionless light on everything happening around me.
These are the tableaux of my elevator ride back to the 5th floor of Castle Hill Hotel after a late dinner with a few literary friends. And a few glasses of excellent cabernet from the region of Szekszard. My neurologist said one glass with dinner was okay, maybe two on festive occasions. Certainly not more than three, I’d made sure of that. I always follow doctors’ orders as I do all orders life throws at me. And enjoy the crumbs that come with compliance while living with the terrifying thought of ever making a mistake.
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About the author:
Paul Sohar earned a BA in philosophy and took a day job in a lab while writing and publishing in every genre. His own poetry: “Homing Poems” (Iniquity, 2006) and “The Wayward Orchard”, a Wordrunner Prize winner (2011). Latest translation volumes: “Silver Pirouettes” (TheWriteDeal 2012) and “In Contemporary Tense” (Iniquity Press, 2013). Magazine credits: Agni, Gargoyle, Osiris, Rattle, etc. He is a frequent contributor to Ragazine.CC, and is one of the We Are You Project poets.