“Shantih shantih shantih” – T.S. Eliot
“Dance into the fire.” – Duran Duran
His motel room was his home for weeks and weeks on end. He checked in to this motel because he had been told by his superiors to check in there. Once inside, he shaved his head, collecting his hair in a plastic bag before dumping it into the toilet and flushing it into the sewer. Then he went to sleep on the floor, ignoring the bed. He slept in his clothes, without a blanket or a pillow.
All during his stay, he never once lay on the bed, nor turned on the television. His wardrobe consisted of two pairs of black shorts, two white T-shirts, two pairs of underwear and two pairs of white socks. Every day he washed the shirt, shorts, socks, and underwear that were dirty that day. This way, he kept clean. Every morning he did sit-ups and push-ups, then shadowboxed, then left his room and jogged ten miles. He took the same route every day, rain or shine. He ran on streets with heavy traffic and no sidewalks. He got honked at on several occasions, and once an especially angry driver threw a bottle at him. He made no effort to dodge the bottle, and did not wince with the pain even after it caught him on the back of the neck. He did not look back at the driver, but just kept running. Onlookers, had there been any, would have been amazed. Upon returning, he showered, shaved his face and head, and took his dirty clothes to the laundry room downstairs.
His superiors paid for his hotel room, and they usually had a nearby deli bring him a sandwich and potato chips for dinner. This was his sole meal of the day.
Ishmael, the man delivering the food, had been paid double not to ask any questions, and he didn’t. He was an immigrant from Iraq, and he knew America was a land of opportunity. He also knew that economic prosperity and intellectual curiosity did not usually mix well. He did not inquire, or think to inquire, about the source from which he was receiving the money, or about the man in the motel to whom he was delivering the food. Ishmael was saving up to buy a sporty American car.
The man in the motel room shall remain nameless, because he had no name.
He’d formally renounced it, given it back to God. He was now addressed as Brother Anti, but that was not his real name; it was what every one of the Antis called one another and themselves. His elder brothers had sent him on this mission, which had so far involved nothing but staying in a motel room, exercising every day, sleeping on the floor, and waiting for further instructions. It had been nearly six weeks, and no further instructions had yet reached him. They were trying him out, he thought, testing his loyalty, seeing if he would desert. He knew that he wouldn’t. He’d broken his attachment to everything, everything except fulfilling his mission. He’d obliterated his ego, and all of the wretched longings of his once-sick heart. His heart wasn’t sick anymore. He’d purged out the sickness. He was not at the mercy of his heart any longer; he did not live for it, but it for him. And he, in turn, lived for the Anti. And they, in turn, lived to destroy the corruptive order of the world, to promote disorder and dis-ease. Such was the way to the Life, the way to the Way.
* * *
“A motel,” said the man, “is a metaphor representing human existence on the earthly plane.”
They were in a diner, and the man lit a cigarette. It was all very contrived, Anti thought, one layer of cliché placed upon another in a knowing manner, like something out of a postmodern movie thriller. The diner, the cigarette, the abrupt philosophizing. The man himself all-too-eerily looked the part. Dapper, late sixties, head full of grey hair, suit and tie. An aging businessman. Not one you would figure to be an Anti. The irony of it all. Someone with a sense of humor must be directing this scene. Brother Anti knew to play his part with this elder of the order. He did not reflect on the irony, but accepted it and went forward with the drama.
One had to go forward. Being self-referential only takes you around in a circle.
So he did not ask questions, only sat there across from the man, in the booth in the smoking section of the diner. He waited for the man to continue his discourse.
After a long pause, the man resumed.
“One does not stay in a motel forever. Nor does one remain forever in one’s physical body. A motel, then, does not deceive. It is not designed for that purpose. A house, however, is deceptive. When one buys a home, one thinks that one is going to live there forever. One entertains an illusion of permanence.”
He took another drag from his cigarette. “A healthy soul, then,” he continued, “is one that is aware, always aware, that as long as one dwells within a body, it is only staying in a proverbial motel, and what’s more, every motel has a check-out time.”
Brother Anti remained silent. He did not nod his head, or give any sign of assent. The man pointed to the coffee pot. “Help yourself,” he said. Brother Anti shook his head. His elder nodded approvingly.
* * *
Earlier that evening, the phone in Brother Anti’s room had rung, ripping his soul from the cozy womb of sleep. He’d picked up the receiver and held it to his ear, without saying anything. He’d been commanded to answer the phone in this manner. A chattering fool speaks when he has nothing to say. Blurting out “hello” when the phone rings means saying something when silence is sufficient. As one acts, so one thinks. To change one’s thoughts, one must change one’s behavior, even when that means breaking with seemingly harmless customs and traditions, like answering “hello” when the phone rings or accepting coffee when it is offered to you.
After he’d held the phone to his ear for a few seconds without speaking, he’d finally heard a voice on the other end of the line. It spoke the name of a nearby intersection, and the name of a diner located at that intersection, and a time. Then the line had gone dead. Now here he was, at the diner, ready to receive his mission.
* * *
After taking several minutes to eat his pie and drink his coffee, while Brother Anti sat and watched, expressionless, the man suddenly took up his discourse again.
“The motel room is a curiosity. One room much like another. Some are more luxurious than others, of course. But all have beds, all have television sets, and all have telephones. If one woke up and found oneself in a motel room, one could be anywhere in the country. Geography, then, is effectively destroyed. One is simply where one is. One is everywhere and one is nowhere. Every place is like everyplace else.
“A house, however, is an entirely different thing. A house is built to reflect or highlight local tendencies. While the stated purpose of a house is to provide one with shelter, the true purpose of a house is to let a person know where he is in the world. The house aims to destroy geography, while the motel room aims to erase geography. When one is in a house, one is somewhere specific. What’s more, one is someone specific. Or so it would seem. But once again, the house deceives.
“It deceives because geography is false. We are not where we appear to be. We are not even who we appear to be. We have been led down the proverbial primrose path. That path leads to death. We must sabotage this path, in order to restore life. We must sow weeds and thorn bushes along this path, making it impossible to traverse.”
Pausing to get his metaphors in order, he finished: “The houses must go. Motels must be erected in their place. We do not belong on this land. We do not belong in this life. We must spread this gospel, with all means at our disposal.”
The man leaned back, wiped the residue of chocolate from his lips. It seemed to Brother Anti that the man had been testing him, and vaguely he perceived that he had passed. He had not ordered any food. He had not been enticed into commenting. He had simply sat aloofly, waiting for instructions. He did not “dance, dance like a dancing bear, cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape.” He did not carry on the way desperate people did. He was cleared, he sensed, given the go-ahead, the proverbial green light.
The man nodded slowly, as though responding to Brother Anti’s thoughts. “Yes,” he reflected, his features hardening into an expression of fierce determination.
“The houses must go.”
* * *
The elder brother was, as he looked, a man of wealth. He spoke disparagingly of homes, yet he himself lived in a huge one. Standing in his opulent dining room, he gestured sweepingly to Brother Anti, who sat on the floor, Buddha style.
“Yes. One may say that I am a hypocrite. I preach what I do not practice. To that, I say, think what you want. You see me, eating heartily. High on the proverbial hog. And so I am.
“Yet,’ he continued. “Yet, yet. If I were commanded to burn this house down, if I were commanded to starve myself, do you not think I would do such thing? Do you not that I would indeed do them, with relish? With peculiar relish? I would. Yes. But, my money serves its purpose. I serve my purpose. I help to fund our movement. My wealth serves the purpose of destroying the concept of wealth. My status works to bring down the notion of status. My power—”
Brother Anti rose suddenly. “What is my mission, sir?” he asked.
He didn’t say it impatiently, or in any way that implied that he was bored with his elder’s speech. His interruption was not meant to be rude, although it would have come across that way to most people. The elder Anti’s face displayed irritation for a split second, then he corrected his expression.
“Yes, to that,” he muttered.
* * *
Brother Anti’s hair grew out. He wore suits, and learned to smile and be friendly. Every night he practiced his social graces before a mirror. He was given instructions by a superior on how to appear sincere. In essence, he unlearned all that he had learned, but he did not forget that he was only pretending. He was, as his superiors told him, learning the Enemy’s tactics, the better to lull him to sleep before striking the killing blow.
Strings were pulled within the organization. Brother Anti was given a name. He was now to be called Brigham Smith by all except those in the know, who knew that Brigham Smith was not his name; rather, he had no name, having given his name back to God.
Be that as it may, the man known by those not in the know as Brigham Smith became a prominent figure in the motel business. Working for a major American chain, he rapidly progressed through the ranks, and in no time ascended to the position of president of the region. Which region precisely hardly matters; a motel is a motel; if you wake up suddenly in a motel room you might be anywhere in the country, and if you woke up in motel rooms enough times you would come to understand that regions hardly matter anyway; where one lives in unimportant, since life is as ephemeral as a stay in a motel.
Brother Anti, of course, did not talk about such things openly. He smiled a lot, wore conservative navy blue suits to board meetings, and knew how to find innovative solutions to the challenges faced by an expanding business in a high-tech global economy. He was well-liked by just about everyone, except for those who envied his talent and were dismayed by the rapid rise of this young upstart to the presidency of his region in the mere matter of a few years. Some wondered just where he’d come from. Something didn’t seem right.
But then these would-be rivals second-guessed themselves. What could be said not to be right about Brigham Smith? Brigham Smith was the essence of what was right. He was living the proverbial American Dream. If Brigham Smith was wrong, then everything was wrong.
Strangely, no one seemed to contemplate the possible correctness of this final proposition.
Instead, the obvious absurdity of the idea of everyone being wrong convinced them to conclude that Brigham Smith must be right after all. Brigham Smith must be right, because everything was obviously right. The economy was in fine shape; one had access to state-of-the-art fitness clubs; gorgeous actresses and models in the process of undressing appeared in one’s mailbox every month; high-quality shows were on TV nearly every night. What was there to complain of? Life was good. Or, as went the familiar quip, it was “a hell of a lot better than the alternative.” (Few of the quippers, of course, devoted much thought to the said “alternative.” They were too intoxicated by their own wit; the wit, that is, to make such a quip about life being better than the alternative.)
Brigham Smith, that is, Brother Anti, earned enough money to buy a fine house, one equally as posh as the home of the elder brother who’d first given him his mission years ago. He kept up appearances, playing his role. He dined with colleagues at fancy restaurants; with them he swapped bawdy stories and raunchy jokes. Everyone saw his house, and envied him all the more for it. He threw parties to rival those thrown by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s legendary Gatsby, to the extent that one might have inquired if there were a Daisy Buchanan in his life; then again, no one around him was literate enough to draw the comparison between him and Gatsby and thus to formulate the analogy: Jay Gatsby is to Daisy as Brigham Smith is to whom?
Their lack of literary knowledge was just as well, because this incomplete analogy with a question mark at the end would only have misled them. There was no woman in Brigham Smith’s life. Or rather, the woman in his life was not a woman, but an idea. And that idea had nothing to do with hotel management. But no one suspected such a thing, since they had their TV shows and their Maxim magazines, their internet blogs and their fitness clubs, and Brigham Smith had all these things, only more so; he was their superior prototype; they felt themselves to have been made in his image.
* * *
“In working to perfect the modern motel,” Brigham Smith began a speech at a corporate gathering on the twentieth floor penthouse of an office building one fateful day, “we are doing holy work.”
He paused, then smiled resplendently, showing his bright white teeth. He looked more handsome than ever in his navy blue suit. He seemed to glow, as if having been transfigured. He continued:
“The motel is the way of the future. A stay in a motel is temporary. There is no illusion of permanence. In this industry, we do not lie to people. We do not tell people that death does not exist. We give them a check-out time, and they must honor it. No one stays forever.”
He paused again. There were a few nervous chuckles from the audience, who weren’t quite sure where all this was going. Still smiling, Brigham Smith continued:
“Together, we have helped to undermine the specious notion of the house. A house lies. A motel room does not lie. A stay in a motel is temporary. We are all, each of us, staying in a proverbial motel room. One day, we will check out.”
Then Brigham Smith, more accurately known as Brother Anti, more accurately known as nothing, since he’d given his name back to God and embraced namelessness, reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a pistol.
Smiling, he asked the audience, “And who will ‘check out’ today?” He asked it in such a manner that you could make out the quotes, even though you were only listening, not reading. “Who will ‘check out?’” he repeated. “Nobody knows for certain. Perhaps none of us will, today. But we know we will, eventually.”
He held the gun to his temple, then pointed it at the audience, moving slowly from one side of the room to the other, like a camera pan shot, then pointed it back at his head again. None of the audience were laughing nervously anymore. They were sitting stonefaced. Sweat was gathering visibly on many a forehead. Forgotten were the fitness clubs, the Maxim cover girls, the TV shows. All were fixated on the gun.
After a pause which seemed like an eternity, but actually wasn’t, the nameless one announced, “It’s not loaded,” and set the pistol on the podium.
There came a collective exhalation of relief, and a smattering of renewed laughter. That Brigham Smith! What a prankster! They were right about the second part; in a way, he was a prankster. But the prank wasn’t over yet.
He walked to the window and opened it. The wind blew through the elegant curtains. Many in the audience sighed with pleasure, appreciating the cool air after suffering their bout with the sweats.
Then he spoke once more.
“There is, of course,” he said, “more than one way to check out. Always remember that, my friends.”
Then he leaped, most athletically, as recalled many in the audience later, out of the window, not in the style of a haphazard, despairing jumper, but rather like a skilled, confident diver. Those on the street below who were looking in the right place at the right time saw him turn two somersaults in the air before meeting the pavement headfirst with outstretched arms.
Had he been diving into water, the splash would have been very small. The judges would have given him high marks. But pavement is not water so the splash was great and loud, and none of the witnesses could recall the beauty of the dive itself because of the unpleasantness which resulted from the contact of a fully human body with concrete. Sad to say, much beauty is thus forgotten.
Why? Everyone asked. No one knew, nor could they fathom the strange final speech of this strange, smiling man who jumped, nay dove, to his death with nimble dexterity and without a speck of hesitation. What could it mean?
Things went on as before, of course. Life goes on, as they say. The world continues to turn. Money continues to exchange hands. New movies still come out every Friday. New technologies are being discovered all the time. One day, man will walk on Mars. One day, man will discover a cure for cancer. And so forth.
Yet, in spite of life going on, in spite of modern science and the march of progress and one’s access to fine entertainment and good food, in spite of affluence and Rogaine and Viagra and laser corrective eye surgery and “Gentleman’s Clubs,” in spite of everything, one shuddered, without knowing why. The rate of shuddering, in fact, sharply increased.
And somewhere in secret, the council of the Antis noticed the increased shuddering rate and nodded approvingly to one another. A great blow had been struck. The nameless man was a hero, though his had been a thankless task. In dying, he had shown the way to the Life, the way to the Way.