The top floor of a hip, ultra-modern hotel in a major northwestern metropolis was one of the last places I ever expected to find myself. For one thing, the nicest hotel I’d ever stayed at before that night was a beat-to-shit Econo-Lodge in Manchester, New Hampshire. And, the top floor of this hotel was the on-site restaurant – an absurdly expensive “Mexican” joint with portions barely large enough to feed the average garden gnome. Tapas, maybe? Seeing as I’m not even culturally informed enough to know exactly what the fuck kind of restaurant I was in, it comes as no surprise that I was feeling out of place there.
I’m not gonna say Applebee’s is my restaurant of choice, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find myself there once about every three months. And I’m more than content to find myself there when I do. Looking out the window of this lavish eatery and getting internally philosophical, I felt like a square peg jammed into a circle.
Now that I really think back on it, I guess it’s no surprise I was getting all introspective and deep. What else was I going to do? I’d finished my measly rations and wasn’t about to drop another ten dollars on another tiny chorizo verde taco that was way more lettuce than chorizo. While waiting for the server to bring the bill, my options for passing the time were quite limited.
While sitting there staring out the window onto the dense landscape, my mind set to wondering why so many horror stories take place in the woods. What’s really so scary about the woods? Other than the obvious bears and Bigfoot and stuff, they’re a pretty peaceful place, just really dark. I’d walk alone in the woods any night of the week before I’d venture out after dark through the countless unseen twists and turns of the big city.
The big city; now that’s a pretty fucking scary place. And so full of wonder, day or night.
Out the window to my right, beyond a gaggle of high rise buildings, the last rays of the day’s sun cast a serene, warming glow on the city below. Out the window straight ahead, hidden from the sun by the shadow of the very hotel I was in, stood a condemned, dilapidated parking garage. Beyond the guard rails of all seven levels, I saw not a single car parked. Only darkness looked back out at me.
The garage’s entrance down on the ground level was blocked off by a thick chain draped across the empty attendant booths. Dangling lopsided on the middle of the stretch of chain was a sign, too heavily marred by graffiti to get its intended message across. From nine floors up I couldn’t be sure what the graffiti meant to say either, but I knew my next stop was that garage. Might as well perpetrate a little urban exploration while I was there in the big, scary city.
It felt as if I’d been teleported to the entrance of the garage. I might’ve sworn that was exactly what had happened if the shock I’d suffered upon seeing the dollar amount of my dinner bill wasn’t still making my head shake. But I’d just gotten to my intended destination with no memory of the actual trip. Sort of like when your exit on the highway is coming up and suddenly you realize you have no memory of passing all the previous exits. There’s a name for that, but I sure as hell can’t remember what it is. I just know it’s a surefire sign that you haven’t been paying attention to the road and you’re lucky you didn’t cause a major accident.
Now that I was up close to the sign that surely at one point was intended to keep people away from the decrepit, old structure, I came to realize that the sign was likely what had drawn me there in the first place. The graffiti upon it, though sloppy and terribly clustered with no symmetry whatsoever, appeared mostly Satanic in nature. Demon faces and pentagrams and the number of the beast in dripping, bloody paint made me smile. At the bottom of the sign, painted in white, were the words “welcome, interloper.”
Staring beyond the entrance into the impossible darkness that waited for me brought about such joy that I could have laughed like a maniac. It was barely even dusk and I was about to venture into the abyss. I could only imagine the depths the darkness would reach in the hours to come.
I came to appreciate the concept of smaller food portions as I lifted my leg over the chain and heaved my awkward mass across. I barely felt even winded. Usually it was a trick just to get my fat ass into my car without having to unbutton my jeans after dinner at Applebee’s.
Of course, I was still hungry. But being in the big city means being able to find something to eat on every corner at just about any hour. Maybe there’d be a hot dog bodega or a sausage cart hidden away in this silent parking garage, known only to the few brave enough to trespass onto forbidden city property. But I digress.
At first the darkness was much like your average nighttime late winter fog, just not white. You know how sometimes you can be driving along the highway into said fog, and it always seems to stay ten to twenty feet ahead of you? Like that. While I’m usually happy about that sort of fog, I was disappointed by the thin, weak darkness. I wanted nothing more than to be sucked in and enveloped by the void. Thankfully, after about twenty or thirty more steps, the darkness thickened and began to pull me inward with its thickening tendrils.
I don’t know how long I walked on completely blind, but it wasn’t very long. Perhaps just a stretched out moment that I was elated to be lost in. When my eyes adjusted I saw a white, glowing rectangular frame off in the distance. I wasn’t at all disappointed. Whatever this light was, its mystery only added to my joy. I had no idea what it was, but that was entirely the point. It was exactly what I’d come for.
Another vertical line of white light appeared straight down the middle of the rectangle, and spread across in both directions until I was looking at a solid white doorway. A silhouetted human figure appeared within, obscuring some of the blinding light – a true kindness to my sensitive eyes.
“Come forward,” she said.
As I did so I found that not all of this dilapidated parking garage was still dormant. I had just stepped onto a fully functioning elevator. And standing next to me was a most peculiarly dressed woman. A shiny black hooded cloak concealed her body and face. Her petite frame and her soft, soothing voice were my only indications of her gender.
“Going up,” she stated, rather than asked. Made sense since we were on the bottom level.
“So, do you work here or something?” I asked.
After a pregnant pause she said, “Yes.”
After a much emptier pause, I said, “Okay.”
The awkward silence ended when we reached the seventh and top-most level. The doors of the elevator came open and I followed her out into the now impossibly dark night. The sky was empty – devoid of stars or even a hint of moon.
An unseen source, hidden somewhere under the night’s black sheath, played eerie, ethereal string music accompanied by some hypnotic, soprano vocals. I guessed the singer was female unless the song was sung by a castrato or a guy with balls and a remarkably high register.
My faceless guide approached me and stood very close. A petite hand reached out from her cloak, so pale it glowed in the dark. Despite the hand being cold to the touch and delicate to the point of brittle, it somehow offered a warming comfort.
“First time in the big city?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said, wondering how beautiful the face that went with that sweet voice must be. “This one, anyways. I’ve been to a few others before.”
“How do you like this one so far?”
“It’s pretty nice. A little too crowded for my tastes. But it’s nice to see something a little different. Whatever is going on right now is a decent break from the hustle and bustle.”
“That’s why we’re here.”
“We?” I asked, looking around the impenetrable darkness. “You’re not the only one who works here?”
“Not at all,” she said. “Come.”
She led me by my hand like a child, which was a little disconcerting. But since I couldn’t see five feet in front of my face, I didn’t protest.
A pocket of light opened up in the distance, and I saw the source of the strange music. In front of a string quartet stood a lovely woman in a black dress gown and equally black hair, crooning away. Her face was heavily made up like that of a skull. The members of her band, all seated with their respective instruments: cello, voila, and two violins, were men in crude skeleton costumes, like the Kobra Kai from Karate Kid.
“This might be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” I said. I felt like a complete dork, or perhaps just a mediocre white man, realizing that I could bear witness to such a magnificent, beautiful spectacle of the surreal, and have nothing more to say than either Beavis or Butthead would.
My inability to express my appreciation in eloquent terms would only grow worse, for not far from the diva and her string band another pocket of light opened up and I saw a five-piece death metal band thrashing away. I could make out little of what the singer was grunting but definitely heard phrases like “rectal impalement” and “vaginal maggots.” Somehow, the two highly different types of music blended perfectly, making a bizarre orchestra.
More and more musicians of all varieties appeared under spotlights. Emo guys and hippy girls with acoustic guitars. Dudes rapping into microphones. A sad guy at a grand piano singing about the city lights with a glass of bourbon on top of the piano. With each new act that suddenly had an audience with me, more and more music blended into a massive but somehow pleasant cacophony of sound and emotion.
“Pretty cool,” I said, knowing I had little more to offer than simple appreciation.
“Thought you’d like it,” my guide replied. “Let’s continue on.”
Still holding my hand, she led me back to the elevator. A moment later she brought me out onto the sixth level. Immediately upon stepping into the covered darkness dozens of circles of lights appeared. In each circle were one or several strippers dancing on poles.
“Wow,” I said, admiring the smorgasbord of titties and vag.
“I figured you’d like this floor,” my faceless guide said, softly giggling. “It gets even better.”
Beyond the strippers I saw people fucking and performing other various sexual acts in beds with end tables and lamps, like little portions of hotel rooms only where the light shined – all of which had a cameraman or woman shooting the scene while a director guided the performers with verbal cues.
“Pretty nice show,” said my hooded guide, “but there is more to see.”
Another quick ride down the elevator brought us out to the fifth level. The darkness broke by the sight of people either sitting on stools and painting on easels, or people sitting cross-legged on the ground drawing into sketch books.
“So is this garage like the haunted hall of artists and performers?” I asked.
“Something like that. Let’s keep going, shall we?”
The fourth level really struck a chord with me. There, piercing the darkness, I saw people writing into notebooks or typing away on laptops. Some were sitting at tables with a latte or a beer. The one thing they all had in common was the look of determination and purpose on their faces. Some looked pretty cocky and self-important. I can only imagine why this particular level seemed to resonate so loudly within me.
“I guess that’s what I look like when I write at the cigar bar,” I said.
“See for yourself,” said my guide. She pulled me further into the array of writers and told me to stare off into the far corner of the garage. “Look familiar?”
A new circle of light emerged and there I saw myself sitting in a comfy chair, typing into my computer and smoking a cigar.
“Oh shit,” I muttered. “Am I a ghost now? Is my soul like trapped here forever of something?”
“What makes you say that, Jeffrey?”
“The symbolism of what I’m seeing here isn’t lost on me,” I said. “If I were to write about this experience I don’t think I’d have to beat the reader over the head with the fact that this parking garage is the graveyard of artists who came to the big city to quote-unquote…make it.”
“You’re greatly overcomplicating things,” laughed my guide.
“Oh, okay. So like, I can leave and go back about my life and stuff, right?”
“Of course, but why are you in such a hurry?”
“Well, I’m here on my wedding-slash-honeymoon. My fiancé is waiting for me back at the hotel. She said something about me picking up dessert while I was out on my stroll.”
Did she? Oh yeah, she did. I’d completely forgotten that conversation along with everything else that happened between leaving the hotel restaurant and arriving at the entrance of the garage.
“You’re going to spend the rest of your life with her, right?”
“That’s the plan, yes.”
“Well then what’s the hurry, Jeff?” Finally, she pulled off her hood and looked at me with her lovely, pale and ghostly visage. “The next level is where the spirits of the culinary artists are. I know you’re still hungry. This one guy has a bomb-ass falafel cart down there. And there’s this one Italian lady who makes the best cannoli I’ve ever had. Why not a grab a couple to go?”
“That’ll work?” I asked.
“Part of you will always be here. It’s only fair you get to take something with you.”