From the underbelly
of Los Angeles, I head onto 405 North and am immediately
on some terrifying high-speed treadmill. Six lanes in
each direction—cars, panel trucks and semis roar along
at 85 miles an hour. A relentless pack of the lost, trapped
in Satan’s mill. The dreadful predestination of a Calvinist
highway. All doomed, hopeless souls, driving towards an
exit that recedes indefinitely.
It’s three in the morning.
After seven and a half hours of getting on and off planes
and an hour of driving hell-for-leather on satanic freeways,
exhaustion and disorientation have set in. Continuing
north on 101, the freeway is level with the upper stories
of the buildings alongside it, so that they seem to be
leaping up like figures of the damned in a medieval depiction
of Hell, desperately thrusting up their hopeful neon signs
and then sinking back into the boiling oil.
A futuristic Via Appia,
along which grotesque and fantastic funerary monuments
will someday be set up. Pacific-rim microchip barons will
erect tombs for themselves along this Via Dolorosa, gaudy
dreamlike mausoleums in the shape of Akitas, sewing machines,
TV sets, cereal boxes, Toyota Camrys, and action figures.
In a sepulcher lit by an eternal flame, two-headed snakes
predict the coming of the Anti-Christ.
How did I come to this?
Let’s see. The last thing I remember was LAX, 2 a.m. The
baggage claim. On the monitor, an infomercial for Thermotronex,
a thermal imaging device that can detect when blood flow
around the eyes starts to heat up—a natural fear reflex
in animals preceding flight. In the interest of national
security, they are to be installed at all airport boarding
gates to detect potential terrorists. The ad claims 83%
accuracy. Knowing me, I’d be among the doomed 17% pulled
out of the line for interrogations, strip searches, and
endless bureaucratic humiliations.
"I can explain officer.
I suffer from chronic internal dread. I have here a letter
from my local ontologist." I am poor, as the old
French saying goes, but my terror is rich.
Budget Car Rental, 2:30
a.m. "What route you planning to take?" the
guy behind the desk wants to know. "Oh, I figure
I’ll take the Pacific Coast Highway north, pull over somewhere
between Redondo Beach and Santa Monica and run in the
ocean, read a couple of choruses from Mexico City Blues
on the beach, drive to Malibu and head inland," I
say omitting the running-in-the-ocean and Kerouac parts.
Even with this stuff edited out, the guy looks at me doubtfully.
"Let me make it simple for you: 405 North to 101
North. Stay on 101 to Westlake Village. And pick up a
cup of coffee at the first gas station you come to."
Ventu Parkway Blvd, reads
the sign. Yes, that has a nasty Orwellian ring to it.
I’ll take this exit. Ventu—short for Ventura? Freeway
Esperanto, or perhaps they just couldn’t fit the whole
word on the sign. Say, where did everybody go? No sign
of life. No houses, schools, malls, multiplexes. Just
Fortune 500 companies humming in the night. Low-lying
haut-cement buildings that manufacture, extrude,
process god-knows-what. I recognize the oxymoronic topography
of your average, upscale industrial park. What else did
I think such a place would be? The modified brutalist
architecture, the prototype a cheery, efficient update
on the Führer’s bunker. Hulks so leaden with amortized
glumness, they have sunk low into the ground. Lenin’s
tomb as virus via mock International Modernism. At night
especially sinister. Organ-harvesting conglomerates out
of Coma. Some creeping ivy-like waxy form of vegetation
spreading over the embankments. In front of the pitiless
bunker-like structures, flood-lit signs with the company
name—Chronoflex, Vinyltech, Polytron—spelled out in Helvetica,
Swiss fascismo typefaces—institutional aesthetic
of airports and hospitals: "THIS way, idiot!"
And always the priapic hedge.
Why am I always on assignment
in these godforsaken places? Dear God, a writer should
be in his garret scribbling strange thoughts—isn’t that
why I became one? To stay home. Not out here on
the unholy road, hunting for double-A batteries in gas
stations in the middle of the night.
I must sleep. Otherwise
I’m going to just stumble out of the car and fall out
on one of these industrial lawns, waking up under the
hypnotic hissing of the sprinkler. Ah, my first sighting
of the Terminal Motel. There it is—behind a row of cloned
poplars, and almost indistinguishable from the other industrial
buildings. As I drive into the parking lot, the building
seems to tense up—like a shifty cell-block guard I’ve
surprised smoking on duty. Rows of identical windows stare
back at me with an affectless gaze.
There’s no lobby.
Of course not. Only an inch-thick bullet-proof plastic
window with a slot through which you shove your money
and credit card—like a liquor store on the Bowery. The
thick plastic window already fractured by some raging
crack-addicted monster from the Id. For a hot-bed type
joint, they sure want a lot of information. Name of business?
Home phone? Person visiting in the area? Make, year of
car? License plate number? Got triple A? Interminable
questions, requests for documents to be submitted. One
of Herr Klamm’s establishments, no doubt. Tired of the
Count’s insolence, the poor pay, the company of serving
wenches—he emigrated. Moved to Thousand Oaks and opened
a string of motels with visions of catering to commercial
travelers—flatware samples in Samsonite luggage, their
steamaway irons and polyester shirts. More often now,
it was impious nights of lust, money, and dirty deals.
Hustlers, hookers, rave deejays, OxyContin pushers, escort-service
johns, and the lost.
The motel built on the
Albanian model—cinderblocks, stucco—by contractors who
had never heard of Albania. But there’s always the Albanian
matrix, the Hotel Carlos where apparatchik whores arrive
in leatherette and Joy, smoke Cuban cigars and have cousins
When the guy at the desk
asks "smoking or non smoking" I didn’t think
he meant the room itself smoked. Maybe the room was lying
to the guy at the desk. If it had indeed given up its
4-pack-a-day habit, it was very recently.
The room is edgy, on guard,
as if braced for some coming insult to itself. The industrial
strength carpeting is of a density and fiber calculated
to defy any sort of abuse thrown at it—cigarettes, gum,
tar, dog shit. Perhaps as a pre-emptive strike, it’s color
and compacted weave mimic the filth it will be subjected
The furniture: standard
dentist-office modern. Blonde wood, brown nubby fabric.
A desk in the same nondescript style. As if insisting
on its anonymity. There’s going to be no small talk here.
Don’t try and get personal, bud. Just put the money on
the dresser; this is a one night stand.
I turn on the TV and click
through the channels. The phone rings. They’ve killed
the story. Jesus! Why should I care? I should be glad,
actually. I didn’t want the stupid assignment in the first
place, but now that it’s been cancelled, the room is—how
to describe it?—gloating.
Curtains, carpet, bedspread.
Everything is either manic holding-tank yellow or thorazine
brown. The bedspread resembles a freshly-dug grave mound,
an Addams Family bouquet of dead flowers. The coverlet
is suffering from bi-polar syndrome, now clearly in its
depressive mode—the primary colors have run away in panic
leaving only the drab, dowdy burnt umbers and raw siennas.
Bathroom. Brown alluvial
tiles on the floor. The tiles on the bathroom wall are
cream colored with rough brown oatmeal-textured surface.
Oh, no. I begin seeing little troll faces in these tiles,
needle-point eyes, alarmed O-shaped mouths screaming—Devonian
demons trapped in the clay, sealed there for millions
of years. The shower head, a long thin dinosaur snout
bursting through the wall, an eyeless, rapacious chrome
Homunculus" by Coco Pekelis
I’m wondering if the patterns
of the tiles possibly be Mayan calendrical signs predicting
rain, sacrifice, volcanoes, UFOs, bird-headed snakes—when
out of the side of my eye I catch sight of the homunculus
of myself. He is also taking a bath and is pale as Lazarus
in an early Netherlandish altarpiece, reflected in the
chrome to resemble myself in the afterlife. One’s self
as might be seen in a painting by Lucian Freud—worn out,
the flesh as metaphor. Vaguely distressed, bewildered,
a bit pathetic, unearthly. Ready for the embalmer. My
look that of the stunned gaze of early Christian portraits.
Weary of life, bewildered from the contemplation of eternity.
In contrast, Roman portrait busts show stoic, no-nonsense
characters, bottom-line guys—the governor of Bythinia
indistinguishable from the CEO of a gasket company. Christianity
brought Holy Doubt. Angels of uncertainty and pause. Asking,
asking…. What is this beginning? Who is this creature?
Stupefaction at the parousia, the presence of the
divine that stops clocks, stuns the mind, and opens the
gospel of circular time.
A diminutive self-portrait
in a convex chrome appliance. Hidden behind a silvery
screen of false silver—the indifference of chrome. As
substance, we are poles apart from wood or stone, but
we can identify with their rough, organic planes. We can
imagine being wood. But chrome—we will never be chrome.
My secret sharer, his skin’s
surface as yellow as a leaf. He navigates my face in search
of answers. He examines me with a calm, resigned look,
like a 2nd century funerary portrait from Fayum,
Egypt. Wooden encaustic images of the dead placed on the
faces of mummies, painted with beeswax, eggs, and linseed
oil. Time has rubbed away all but the eyes from some,
the painters having reserved the darkest black for the
pupils. Only a glazed look remains—thinking about afterlife
will do that to you. Hollows wherein darkness accumulates
and gives the mind a well into which to cast itself if
it wishes to gaze on the face of eternity.
century mummy portrait from Fayum, Egypt
My doppelganger is a creature
of great melancholy and forbearance, miming my every action.
Was he the one that ran the show, my engineer? My ka,
as the ancient Egyptians would say, operator of my soul.
Caught by surprise in a metal mirror. The desperate nature
of the room, its brazen hideousness had startled him into
existence. Aroused such pity and sadness in him he’d awoken
with fright in his chamber in the hippocampus. The room
itself had winkled him out.
Infernal room, indicator,
oscillator of mood, has my state of mind manifested this
place? The breviary of Bishop Berkeley mentions only repetition,
loss, neglect—the cosmos does not exist to give you signs,
says the soothsayer, but, at the rosy apocalypse, whom
will you believe?
The kind of place an embezzler
goes to hang himself. On the nightstand the .45 and the
Gideon bible. Wife’s body in the trunk. Vodka, sleeping
pills. A chiseler on the run from the mob. A singer-songwriter
who, digging too deeply in the rubble of the soul, has
found only petty meanness and degradation where once he
glimpsed a fiery boot and milk-white sirens on the moon.
My name is....
You have no name.
What is your
name? You have forgotten your name.
My name is....
mind. We have to move on.
In the morning I decide
to check out—if they’ll let me. Behind the plastic window
the night clerk is asleep. I slide my keys through the
slot and creep away. To restore my sanity I repeat the
words of a Bounty commercial as I head out to the highway,
does jobs you didn’t
know a paper towel could do,
you didn’t know a paper towel could do,
jobs you didn’t know a towel or two ago,
towers undo the jobs that words construe….