Below is the first chapter of the unpublished, in-progress novel Bad Dreams. Check back for occasional updates.
THE HORIZON IS VERTICAL
August 10th, 1984
Perched like a bird of prey on West 23rd Street, red brick the color of rust or blood, the Hotel Chelsea struck a pose on this heavy August night. It was barely past eight; the sky had only begun to dim, brilliant blue color slurring into cobalt, turning the red walls even more vivid. Ornate iron framework on the stacked balconies looked to be etched by some godly hand, its black floral pattern delicate, invincible. And the sign itself, scraping its nails into the edifice of the building, “Hotel” and “Chelsea” written perpendicular, the intersection of something—filth and majesty, life and death.
Inside, a muffled din rose through the building, various cacophonies behind closed doors. There was a steady pounding like a hammer into plaster, creating something unknown—a portal, perhaps, between two adjoining rooms. (A few of the tenants were known to do this, tearing down walls and tunneling passageways to recently vacated rooms, parceling up space inside the hotel as they saw fit—a manifest destiny approach.) Two angry voices resounded on the sixth floor, a man and woman hysterical, and even though the words were muffled beyond discernment, the screams might have been coming from the very next room. Someone was playing a record at top volume—something bombastic, classical, Tchaikovsky from the sound of it. Every night the symphony of the Chelsea was different, its melodies and dissonances brand new, but there was always something familiar about its polyphony, something ambitious, messy and unnerving.
Barry Grengs stepped out of Room 407, cringing on the inside from the characteristic chaos. This went against all of his sensibilities. He was, by now, used to tranquility, an existence ruled by reason and routine.
There was no reason or routine in the Chelsea. When Barry first arrived that morning—lugging a wheeled suitcase, eyes wary behind oversized sunglasses—he’d gotten lost on the fourth floor. He had ventured down hallways that ended suddenly, doors at the end boarded off and padlocked, the paintings on the walls—canvases of beguiled livestock and Elizabethan royalty and abstract humanoids—smirking conspiratorially. Paint peeled off the walls; stains created Jackson Pollock patterns in the corners of the ceilings. Thick rugs of deep, rich colors gathered dust and emitted clouds when you trod over them. The staircase, its railing made of black iron, snaked down the length of the building, its angles cutting and shifting with the sudden violence of some German Expressionist movie.
He could have booked a room somewhere more agreeable. The Plaza up in Midtown, maybe. Let the company foot the bill—his corporate overseer had, after all, gotten him used to this cozy lifestyle in the first place. But no. He had to play the part.
He had even selected his costume carefully, aiming to evoke the Chelsea’s bohemian squalor. His pants, tight at the hip and wide near his boot soles, gave the impression of a fluttering windsock, the deep brown color of a cockroach’s carapace. One could barely see the gleaming tips of alligator hide beneath the pant cuffs. His thin silk shirt was a galaxy of earth tones, from Midas golds to eggshell whites, and it fit so snugly across his chest that the buttons strained to detach themselves. A bluish sportcoat was flung over his left arm; it was made of polyester and, considering the temperature both outside and inside surpassed the mid-nineties today, had already created a puddle of sweat on his forearm. His black hair, slick and oily, clung to his forehead in a swoop, reflecting the dim lightbulbs of lamps and garish chandeliers. He had considered a fedora, had even found one a perfectly ugly shade of brown, but he didn’t want to overembellish. It was a delicate balance—looking just peculiar enough to go completely unnoticed in Chelsea.
He crept down the narrow hallway to the building’s foyer, then waited on the staircase landing, his elbow resting on black iron. He looked down and then up, angling himself as he peered toward the heavens. Sounds of life and a sort of humming energy came back to him.
“You see him too?”
A shrill voice erupted to Barry’s right, emphatic and sudden as a clatter of dishes. Barry re-contorted himself, twisting and straightening his body, jacket growing heavy on his arm.
The man who appeared there sagged to the floor, knees and spine bent and withered. He didn’t have the energy to raise himself fully, or to look Barry in the eye when he spoke, or to present himself as a man worthy of the dignity he so desperately needed. His clothes—a pair of gray pinstripe pants, scuffed at the knees; a black sportcoat, which had probably been tossed by a Wall Street banker into an alleyway dumpster on a hot night; and a white T-shirt, which showed a trickle of bloodstains near the collar—were all too large for him and had acquired a staggering collection of smells over the four and a half months they had gone unwashed. His body was in a constant state of motion, sudden tics and cagey glances, and every muscle was tense and primed to detonate. Tufts of patchy, dirt-caked hair sprung out in every direction, though he’d begun losing it rapidly at the top and his scalp resembled desert underbrush. A beard billowed past his jawline, but its fullness—like so much else about him—was merely a product of misuse and disinterest.
Barry struggled to suppress a gasp; his body nearly recoiled, but he was able to keep his revulsion on the inside. For a split second, he questioned this reaction, ashamed at how uptight he’d grown over the last ten years. Wasn’t this man exactly the kind of outcast he’d lionized back in his college days? Hadn’t he speechified about how junkies like this were hooked and then chewed up by society, labeled monsters by the very system that had created them? The vain, self-perpetuating rants came back to him now, his old declamatory college self, but then he reverted to the one overriding impulse that had governed his behavior for the last decade: self-preservation.
“Sorry, I don’t understand,” Barry muttered, turning and stomping away. His alligator boots clacked against the floor, which was tiled in a black-and-white diamond pattern.
“Who you looking for?”
Barry stopped in front of the elevator. There was nothing extraordinary about it—it was narrow, about four feet wide, and the hulking metallic door was painted a cream-corn yellow—and it was that banality, in the midst of the Chelsea’s numerous quirks, that made it especially unsettling. In any case, Barry had already discovered that the elevator rarely worked, and when it did it lumbered with the fragility of the hotel’s most hungover denizens, charting a seven-minute journey from first floor to twelfth.
So he walked on, curling around the corner of the banister.
“Just the exit, really,” he responded to the man's question.
“I seen God, too,” he replied.
Barry skipped down a set of stairs. The man followed after him, shoes gliding. He moved with surprising speed and agility, considering the painful comedown he appeared to be experiencing at the moment.
“This morning, I did.”
There was a painting of a three-headed infant at this landing, drawn in a crude, cartoonish style; the colors were fuchsia and sunflower yellow.
“You wanna know where?”
Barry didn’t stop, didn’t even look over his shoulder as he responded.
“I don’t want to be rude, but no, I don’t. I’m in a hurry, sorry.”
“Fuckin’ ten blocks away. Union Square. No shit.”
On the second-floor landing, Barry’s boot stepped onto glass, splintering it into
countless shards and sending a sharp crack through the air. He raised his leg, grunting, and examined the pieces of glass embedded in his rubbery boot sole. Below, on the floor in the very nook of a corner, a three-inch glass tube was smashed, one end of it bearing visible scorch marks.
The man nearly ran into him on the landing, scratching each elbow simultaneously.
“‘Round dawn. Like, it was still gray and dark, mostly, but they was a few colors in the sky.”
They reached the ground floor. Barry pulled on his heavy jacket, feet clacking onto pearl-white tile that stretched from the staircase to the front desk, then rounded a narrow corner to the entryway. In a tiny lobby at the bottom of staircase, a woman in a red dress—low-cut, a ribcage jutting through pale skin—paced back and forth, lips moving as she muttered something to herself. There were more paintings; the theme here appeared to be suburban malls in vibrant color. In front of the desk, a hallway cut to the right, then led like a funnel into a larger lobby, where mismatched furniture—much of it gifted by tenants and art galleries that wanted a fringe reputation—were placed geometrically, snow-white divans facing red leather armchairs. Then it was a twenty-yard jaunt until fresh air, freedom—still heavy and sour with the scent of sweat and ripening garbage, but carrying a cool breeze.
“I was sleeping,” the man continued, “cuz that’s where I happened to lay my head, you know. I remember, my eyes were closed and I thought I was dreaming but I could hear the birds, right, and they sounded too real. Like, you know those coupla minutes where you asleep but you know you gonna wake up in a blink.”
Barry took long and lunging strides; the man followed after with the speed of an ocean-dwelling sycophant. The deskman watched them pass, his stare glassy and devoid of emotion. After the years he had spent here, it would take much more than this interaction to jostle him out of his apathy. Glancing around, Barry detected hostile squints from several people in the lobby, who eyed the two men up and down as they passed through their singular territory. Then, feeling defenseless, he realized that the glares were meant for him—the stranger they had never seen in the Chelsea lobby—and not for the crackhead who, in fact, was a regular visitor here, sometimes finding refuge on the floors or the sofas a few hours before dawn, or invited upstairs by sympathetic residents, themselves recovering addicts who knew his plight well or ongoing users who wanted someone to share their high.
“And I remember it got real hot, like. The birds shut up, like they all died or some shit, and I felt this fireball coming to me. And I thought of—”
“You need some money?” Barry asked, still refusing to turn around. He even thrust his hand into his pocket, rooting around for moist dollar bills, never slowing for an instant.
“Nah, man. Fucking—no. I thought of, I was gonna say, when I was young, in the kitchen with my ma, and she’d tell me to check on some shit, something she was baking, and you stick your face right in the goddamn oven. Feels like you’re gonna die, but it’s so comforting, you know.”
“So I opened my eyes, and cuz I’m facing—fuck, east?—yeah, east, the sun is just coming up and it’s like red and gold dots. Everything is still gray and black, but there’s like something in the sky.”
After what seemed to Barry like a cross-country trek, he reached the pair of heavy wooden doors at the entryway (Hotel Chelsea written on the glass in ornate cursive) and planted his hand against the one on the right. As the door heaved open, budging slowly at Barry’s touch, a universe of smells and sounds rushed to him—a creation of the city, its potency heightened by the late-summer night, buzzing and pregnant as though it concealed some impending storm.
This time the man did bump into Barry as he paused beneath the red and white awning. Barry caught his balance and turned around to glare at him, realizing how priggish he looked even as he did so; but the man simply took this as an invite to continue his story.
“But there’s someone there, that’s what I see. I’m in incredible pain, you know, I got blisters on my skin I feel, but there’s also this…euphoria, right?”
23rd Street was fairly quiet at the moment; it seethed in the dusk, waiting breathlessly for the night to begin. Stuck between the allure of Greenwich Village and the glittery cesspool of Times Square, this strip of Chelsea wouldn’t begin to wake up until after one a.m., when half-clad revelers high on various powders would stumble out the doors of nightclubs and discotheques, finding refuge in Chelsea lofts that held debaucherous afterparties. Currently, two women walked or floated down the sidewalk toward Barry, wearing translucent dresses of light blue and lavender. Across the street, a broad-muscled man wearing a leather vest moved in a bow-legged gait. Barry stepped to the curb, waiting for the women to pass, and scoured the horizon for a taxi.
“I can’t see its face, whatever it is. There’s this light coming from it, just glows. Radiates. For real, that’s what it is,” he finished, as though he was only now reaching this epiphany.
No taxi in sight. Eight-thirty on a Friday night in Chelsea and not a goddamn taxi in sight.
“Radiation—like, you seen those films, test films of the fucking A-bomb, somewhere in the desert, and that mushroom cloud goes up and looks like it’s gonna burn through the screen? How white it is, whiter than the brightest sky? That’s what it looked like, man, no shit. Walking mushroom cloud.”
Here was a little yellow speck in the distance, racing westward on the far side of the street, lighted sign beckoning on top. Barry raised his arm in a Sieg Heil gesture, stepping into the street and eliciting a horn from a passing Buick, but the taxi kept on moving. In the backseat was an old woman wearing a purple cardigan and a cotton blouse buttoned to the neck—it must have been torture in this heat.
“So I sit up, or I try to, even though my body’s gonna snap in fucking half and I’m already sweating my balls off, it’s two-hundred degrees. There’s water behind us, that—whaddayacallit—fountain. And it’s, like, boiling, no shit. I can hear the water boil. And still, this thing is just standing there, twenty feet tall, tall as some of the fucking trees there, ya know, in Union Square? Pure light, just staring at me.”
Another taxi, this time moving east—it was about to pass two feet in front of Barry, within striking distance. Again it ignored Barry’s outstretched arm, which had already begun to develop stains in the pit of the deep blue fabric of his sportcoat.
“I know it wa’nt no…hallucination. I know what you’re thinking, of course it was, but then I started to feel like the eyeballs are bubbling in my head, like this weird pleasant pain where they turning to liquid, and I knew then, that was a fucking hallucination. But not this ball of light in front of me, that was there, sure as the statues and the, you know, weeds coming up through cement.”
Seeing that a speedy escape route was not forthcoming, Barry ran a hand through his dampened hair and turned to stare down his companion.
“Are we reaching the end of this story?”
“Yeah, man, yeah. So I ask it, you know, ‘What the fuck are you?’ And I feel it get hotter, like my skin could just slide off in patches, you know. And it says, I shit you not” (and here he adopted a grave, booming voice that seemed to come from outside his body) “‘I am that which cannot be named.’”
“You don’t say,” Barry muttered, sarcasm dripping with scorn.
“I do say, I do. And then it talks to me again. The sky is filling up with all these colors now, colors I ain’t never seen before, like shooting stars full of colors. It says, ‘I have a message for you alone.’”
“Listen, man, I’m sorry but I am in a hurry.” It happened to be true. Barry had a lot on his mind already—namely a work assignment more earth-shattering than anything he’d been entrusted with before. He had no time for the raving visions of an addict in the throes of withdrawal. “Gotta jet.”
“You don’t want to hear the message?”
Barry shrugged. “Spread the word of God to somebody else.”
The man scoffed at him more viciously than Barry expected; a spray of saliva even flew from his mouth, most of it caught in the gnarly hairs of his beard.
“This some meaning-of-life shit, man.”
“I’ve already attained enlightenment, though. Good luck, alright?”
This seemed like a strange thing to say, it struck Barry after the words left his lips. Regardless, he spun to his right and walked west along 23rd Street. Before he got two steps, the man stopped him again.
“You said you had money?”
Barry halted mid-stride, grimacing. He waited there on the sidewalk, anchored by the heat, and thought about ignoring him. But instead he thrust a hand into his cavernous pocket, dragging a ten-dollar bill from its depths. He pivoted in his boots, shot the man a look that oozed with pity and arrogance, and inserted the crumpled bill into the man’s dirt-caked palm. He pulled his hand back quickly, feeling it shudder involuntarily.
“Get some food.”
With that, he turned again and stomped off toward 8th Avenue, feeling he handled himself as tactfully as he could. True, he could have done more, but he wasn’t Mother Teresa. Other problems—his own—were paramount at this point, or so he told himself in what had become his mantra. The man on the sidewalk watched him leave and narrowed his wet, inscrutable eyes in Barry’s direction, God’s message having been left unsaid.