An Artist Goes to Hell – Excerpt 5

22 Nov

Pensivemo stood from the table. Some people were muttering. Others were exiting quickly. A series of echoey sounds filled the air. It was hard for Pensivemo to tell exactly what the sound was but it was like elephants crying. However, it didn’t have all the nuances of animal noise, but an unrestrained sound, like torrential winds. A strong breeze ran through Pensivemo’s hair as he followed an anxious Swindell.

When Swindell turned around to face the windows again, his eyes grew wide. ‘Oh God,’ he said.

Pensivemo turned to see what he was looking at. Outside, the sky was black. Inside the restaurant, napkins and menus swirled into an indoor breeze. Plates were picked up by the air and the wildly blowing pant-legs and long skirts of different patrons flailed about as everyone bunched up to the side of the restaurant, filing out with limbs lifting and waving, voices giving out yelps, hiccups of noise and unfinished sentences.

Swindell grabbed Pensivemo by the shirt, causing it to rip, and pulled him toward the kitchen. Swindell let go, threw himself to the floor and scooted himself against the wall. Pensivemo joined Swindell, who breathed heavily, his face panicked, his eyes wide. ‘We have to get out,’ Swindell said.

‘It’s a game, like you said, right?’

‘It’s not a game anymore!’

A cook in the kitchen walked toward the seating area with a pistol in hand, a fevered look on his stress-worn face. He aimed at nothing in particular. One of the waitresses yelled at him in Spanish from behind the metal table. He fired a round into the air. The sound of the shot was a brief snap swallowed into the moaning, flood-like sounds of the indoor wind.

The lights flickered off and on. The foundation shook. Pots and pans rattled and clanged to the floor.

‘Is someone doing this?’ Pensivemo yelled through the noise.

‘Yeah, someone’s doing this,’ Swindell yelled back.

The lights shut off completely and a few people in the kitchen screamed. The shaking stopped but the sound of the winds grew louder. The lights came back on. Pensivemo got to his feet as the ground rumbled steadily.

‘There’s an escape hatch at the top,’ a waiter shouted, pointing to a metal ladder leading to a small door in the ceiling.

Pensivemo started toward it but turned back to check on Swindell. He was still sitting on the floor, hugging his legs, shaking his head, his eyes all flinched up.

‘What the hell’s wrong with you?’ Pensivemo said.

Swindell hugged himself tighter and let out a sole, uncontrolled whimper.

Pensivemo turned to the ladder and followed the waiter and other workers up the cold, chipped rungs. As they climbed up and out the other side, he saw a square opening in a grated walkway above them, and further above the next ceiling, a system of pipe-lines.

When Pensivemo reached the top, he saw that Swindell red-eyed and pale-faced, had in fact followed them up. The foundation had stopped shaking and the noise from below had muffled into a steady hum. Pensivemo turned to Swindell and asked, calmly, ‘What the hell’s happening down there?’

‘That’s one branch you don’t want on your ass,’ he said, his voice shaky.

‘Come on,’ the waiter said, heading toward a door at the end of the hallway. They gathered around him as he pressed its metal latch and pushed it open.

The next room was completely white with rectangular red rugs, probably about a dozen or so, lying about the floor. On each rug was a man in a white suit, sitting cross-legged with closed eyes as though in meditative trances. All of them were Asian. The rug directly in front of them had standing on it a woman. She had her hair pinned up above her pale face and shiny, red gown. It was only as she opened her eyes that Pensivemo heard what sounded to his ears like traditional Chinese music playing very softly.

Swindell was still recovering from the trauma of fear and the embarrassment of its resulting itchy-eyed, pale-faced terror by way of uncertain glancing around and an air of postured self-assurance. Pensivemo turned to him and said, ‘What is this place?’

Softly, Swindell muttered, ‘This isn’t a branch I know much about. They’re pretty private.’

Pensivemo turned to the woman and asked, ‘Is it alright if we stay here for a moment? Until all the trouble passes?’

‘Trouble will not pass,’ she said, ‘but you may pass through.’

‘But if trouble will not pass, as you say, we’ll just meet trouble again when we come out the other side,’ Pensivemo said. ‘We can’t stay even for a few moments?’

‘You may not stay here for a few moments,’ the woman said. ‘To stay here for a few moments is to sign the contract that all of these men have signed.’

‘And what contract is that?’

‘The contract is such that if you agree to stay here, you must stay here for the rest of time.’

Pensivemo squinted. ‘Unfortunately, eternity isn’t something I can squeeze into my schedule. Would there happen to be another way out?’

She pointed to a white door on the opposite side of the room. ‘But to exit that way, you agree to another contract.’

‘And what might that be?’

‘You agree that any and all activity you have ever been party to will not bring us in as a referral party to speak or act on your behalf in any way.’

‘Very well,’ Pensivemo said. ‘Is it unlocked?’

‘Yes,’ she said.

He bowed to her with his hands pressed together. As each of the others passed her, they all did the same.

Once Pensivemo reached the other side of the door, all the men sitting on the red rugs, without opening their eyes or making a sound shifted over to face him in one fluid motion. By this time the few kitchen staff had joined Pensivemo at the door.

One of the men jumped up from his rug, smiling big. In good, accented English, he said, ‘I know you!’

Pensivemo only realized he’d taken a step back after he’d done so.

‘I mean, I know who you are,’ the man said. The more he talked, the more youthful he seemed. ‘You’re Pensivemo Croce! We studied your plays at university! I am one of those embarrassed to say that I wasn’t sure you did anything else until a friend introduced me to your other works. I’m sorry. I sound cliché. What are you doing here, if you don’t mind my asking?’

‘I’m just … trying to figure that out myself,’ Pensivemo said.

‘Very well! Let us know if there is anything we can do for you!’

The woman who’d been standing at the front approached him, speaking Chinese and shaking her head.

‘Oh,’ the young man said, his face sorrowful but comprehensive. He turned to Pensivemo again. ‘It seems that I’m not able to help you, but I do hope that we will meet again! Though …’ (his face growing sorrowful again) ‘I do think that the only way this will occur is if you come and visit me, for I’m not allowed to leave this room, due to my contract.’

‘Well … maybe I’ll be able to come back at some point,’ Pensivemo said. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Lin,’ he said, smiling. ‘It’s so nice to have met someone who … meant so much to me in such times of trouble.’ For a moment, he looked apprehensive about speaking again, stopping and starting in several gasping breaths. Perhaps having realized that Pensivemo was willing to listen, he said, ‘Well, you know, it’s peaceful here and I’ve been able to learn a lot about the world, but there are still hard times … I dare say that you’re work has even helped me through those times in here … just the memory, I mean, because I can’t have books or anything.’

‘Hm,’ Pensivemo said. ‘Well … I’m glad I could help. I just …’

The woman looked at Pensivemo sternly. ‘You and your friends must leave now or the contract to stay here will be fulfilled by your loitering.’

‘Okay,’ Pensivemo said. He gave Lin a little wave and went to the door.

The door led to a hallway with a metal grated floor and ceiling with mirrors on either side. The mirrors were bent in such a way that everyone looked like swirls of flesh-color and hair-color.

At the end of the hallway was another door that looked like an elevator.

‘Shall we?’ Pensivemo asked.

‘There’s nowhere else to go, I suppose,’ Swindell said.

The half dozen other cooks and waitresses filed in with them as Pensivemo said, ‘What was that back there?’

‘I’m not sure,’ Swindell said. ‘I’ve never seen that room. Some new firm, I guess.’

‘No, before that,’ Pensivemo said. ‘At the restaurant.’

‘Let’s just focus on the future, alright?’ Swindell said.

‘Focus on the future?’ Pensivemo said with disgust. ‘How? I don’t have a past yet. Which level do we take? A? Will that get us out of here?’

‘No, B is more likely to get us out of here,’ Swindell said. ‘But something tells me it’ll be difficult this time of day.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘Well, let’s give it a shot.’ Swindell pushed the white B button and the doors shut.

The elevator sank with an odd suddenness, as though their souls were still above them somewhere. They were all silent as they descended. The small bell chimed and the doors opened.

Beyond the elevator, the hallway was covered in papers, charts, blue bed sheets and bullet shells. The floors and walls were spackled and smeared with blood, as were places on the floor. A woman screamed in the distance.

‘I think we’re on the wrong floor,’ Pensivemo said.


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