SB 101 by Leland Neville

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SB 101 by Leland Neville
Illustration by Sue Babcock

Jimmy Cruz, twenty stories below the Transnational Hotel Central Park, stands before SB 101. He cracks open the unlocked lead-lined door.

“Is everything all right in there?” Jimmy’s voice is calm and reassuring. He’s a natural people person who should be working full time at the front desk instead of being the go-to guy for suicide duty. “There is no need to be alarmed, but the hotel is concerned. Checkout was at noon and you didn’t answer the phone.”

SB 101. Sub-basement 101. Something Bad 101.

Two telephone calls from the front desk went unanswered (never a good sign) but maybe the oblivious guest is enjoying a pleasant soak inside the vintage clawfoot bathtub. Steamy water. Soft flesh.

A chain of disturbing images abruptly unfolds. Jimmy reminds himself that he is having a good day. Nothing too bad has ever happened to Jimmy during a good day.

He steps inside the room. A whiff of warm air sweetened by the steady flow of medical oxygen burns his nostrils.

“There are dozens of ghosts who lurk inside SB 101, their souls trapped and tormented,” said Claude Mallett. It was Assistant Deputy Manager Jimmy’s first day on the job, six months ago.

Jimmy’s interest in the unknown began at an early age (Scooby-Doo) and has continued unabated. He watches the Unexplained Phenomena Network and is a habitual visitor to their website. Since most people disdain ambiguity (even wrong answers are preferable to no answers) he rarely shares his passion for the unknown.

“That’s kind of interesting,” said Jimmy.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” said Claude. “I’m not just your boss, I’m your mentor. Remember: The sub-basement is not for pussies.”

  1. Suicide Basement. The room, priced at $40 thousand a night, does a brisk business.

Jimmy Cruz quietly closes the door behind him. A dim light flickers inside the bathroom “Hello. Is everything all right? My name is Jimmy.” He takes a few deep breaths of the synthetic air and again reminds himself that this is a good day and there will be no unsettling horrors.

Within a few seconds of waking up, Jimmy always knows if it’s going to be a good (or bad) day. Since this is a good day, he plans to ask Anastasia, a Ukrainian maid, out for pizza and margaritas at the end of his shift. Jimmy shared a joint with her in the alley during the morning break. Her fingernails are painted black. The language barrier won’t be a problem. Sharing a joint is superior to Tinder when it comes to successfully hooking up. (Hector, one of Claude’s pets, told Jimmy to be careful around Anastasia because she is a corporate spy.)

There is no sound of running water in SB 101. That’s definitely a good sign. The guest is probably old and hard of hearing. Jimmy has a natural aptitude for communicating with the deaf as well as with East European maids. There’s just been an innocent mix-up in SB 101. That’s all. Computer errors are increasingly common.

Jimmy knows for a fact that two assistant deputy managers at the Transnational Hotel have less than one month of experience each. The two newbies are never assigned to suicide duty. Claude surmises that Jimmy, courteous and accommodating, must not be a troublemaker. Jimmy rarely complains.

He shares his mother’s philosophy: “You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have, real life.”

When Jimmy wakes up and a malicious force holds him down and grabs his balls, he immediately knows it is going to be a bad day. He always refuses, however, to call in sick to work or hide under the bed. Bad days are a valuable learning experience. (When Jimmy once experienced three consecutive bad days, he thought often about his grandfather.) Anyway, the good days outnumber the bad ones by a wide margin, although Jimmy doesn’t keep score.

During his second day on the job, Claude ordered Jimmy to investigate the status of a delayed checkout in SB 101. Claude and his minions didn’t disguise their loutish smirks. To make matters worse, Jimmy woke up that morning painfully aware that it was going to be a bad day.

The vision of that old dead white man inside the oversized tub, naked, shriveled and spotted, his wide eyes terrified by the prospect of an unknowable eternity, continues to haunt him.

Jimmy has witnessed two relatively gruesome murders during his 22 years on earth. There had been copious blood (the knife) and bloodcurdling screams (the handgun), but within 48 hours of each of those grisly crimes the horror shrank to an acceptable level. There were no lingering nightmares, flashbacks, or unpredictable accelerating heartbeats. (There are, however, mitigating circumstances. Since Jimmy observed the murders on “good days,” the traumatic fallout was presumably diminished. On the other hand, encountering the dead old man in the middle of a “bad day” most likely intensified Jimmy’s torment.)

Jimmy read about the old dead white man in Wikipedia. He made his billions in finance. He fathered six children. One of his ex-wives had been an actress and Playboy centerfold. Except for his final unspeakable minutes in SB 101, the old man had lived an amazing life. Jimmy’s nightmares should center on the violent deaths of those two young men. They were poor. Neither had an ex-wife or girlfriend famous for her naked beauty. Neither probably ever experienced a genuinely good day. But it’s the old man, no bigger than a garden gnome, who arrives unwanted at night and refuses to disappear. And his eyes, despite having seen everything in the world worth seeing, remain frozen in horror. (The old man, his fortune cannibalized within days of his cremation, is no longer in Wikipedia.)

SB 101. Senate Bill 101. The Death with Dignity Act.  After the Governor signs the bill it will become a law.

Jimmy’s grandfather, a Mexican immigrant, a devout Catholic, hanged himself. There had been relentless pain from inoperable cancer, but the act of suicide is always a grave matter, a sin against God. Grandfather insisted to the end that he was only being tested by a God who never gives a man more pain than he can endure. Jimmy knows that suicide, like cancer, runs in families. Having cancer would be like impotently confronting an almost never-ending chain of slow-motion bad days. (Jimmy’s grandmother, a Greek, a direct decedent of Plato, didn’t believe in immutable principles.)

Jimmy never told anyone about being blessed or cursed with the innate ability to accurately predict the goodness or badness of the upcoming day. He has dismissed the possibility of it being a self-fulfilling prophecy; Jimmy would never self-induce throbbing testicles and persistent sorrow. (There have never been partially good or partially bad days. His testicles have never been just a little sore. It’s either good or bad, sorrowful or blessed. There is no ambiguity.)

Jimmy does not keep track of the number of good and bad days, like writing a G or a B on a calendar. That would be asking for trouble. He does know, however, that the good days, heralded by waking up with an erect optimistic penis, have exceeded the bad aching balls days by a wide margin. Jimmy never buys scratch cards during a good day. It’s true that he has only asked girls to go out with him on good days, but Jimmy believes that that indiscretion is not a serious violation of his blessing or curse. And anyway, a day with tender testicles is not a day conducive to the possibility of sexual relationships.

Did the old man inside the bathtub have the capability to foresee good and bad days? Did he only invest in the stock market on his good days? Did he recklessly tempt fate? Is the pleasure of a fulfilling life, the first time he touched the flesh of the naked playboy centerfold, cancelled by a traumatic end? Jimmy’s belief in karma is undoubtedly old-fashioned superstition. But how many bad days can someone tolerate? Those three consecutive bad days awakened Jimmy to the bleak prospect of perpetual despair.

Memories from bad days play catchup. The bad can never be denied. You pray for one more good day. You then fashion a noose and climb onto a wobbly chair. Or you slide your defeated body into a hot bath inside an isolated and overpriced hotel room and slit your paper-thin flesh with an antique straight razor. Death should only occur during a good day, but every good day could be your last.

The old man should have left a note. Everyone should leave a note. Big thick black letters. “To Whom It May Concern: Call Police. Don’t Enter The Bathroom. I Am Sorry For The Mess.” Suicide victims, even the billionaires, are not big tippers. Jimmy vows to leave a note and a nice tip.

Jimmy takes five steps into SB 101. He envisions Anastasia’s porcelain hands, her black fingernails. There is a darkness inside her, like a broken piece from the center of one of Jimmy’s bad days.

SB 101 can withstand solar blasts. It dates from the Cold War era. The room is nestled deep inside the Manhattan schist, a strong metamorphic rock. It is a tech free zone. It’s a tomb with room service.

“Excuse me,” says Jimmy. The room is illuminated in a soft golden hue. He glances warily at the closed bathroom door; no diluted blood is seeping onto the thick beige carpet. Jimmy steps cautiously into the living room, luxuriously appointed with ornate furniture, probably Victorian. A half-eaten slice of French toast is the only sign of occupancy. “Hello,” says Jimmy. He repeats his greeting, louder.

It’s most likely an overdose. Perhaps a little dried vomit and a soiled sheet. Nothing too disgusting. Jimmy has discovered nine suicides inside SB 101, and seven were from overdoses. Six of those suicides left the door unlocked. (Not one guest left a note.) Overdosing might be the least traumatic means of death for everyone involved.

If the bedroom is unoccupied, he will have no choice but to investigate the bathroom. He will not call for backup and risk an onslaught of annoying derision from the repulsive Claude Mallett. But worse than ridicule would be feeling Anastasia’s pity. When they shared the joint, Jimmy detected a soul scarred by the death and destruction she witnessed in a distant alien landscape. Finding a suicide victim, no matter how gruesome, does not approximate the dread that smolders inside Anastasia.

Jimmy moves quickly into the bedroom and gives it the once-over. Nothing seems to be askew except for a strewn pile of white rags on the tightly made bed. Jimmy reminds himself once again that this is a good day. He and Anastasia will soon be sharing margaritas and a pizza.

Before proceeding to the bathroom, he again looks at the incongruous lump of linens on the bed and questions the reliability of his hyperactive senses.

The mummy’s eyes are, mercifully, closed. The agape mouth reveals two rows of teeth, tiny tombstones. Jimmy sits on the corner of the bed and takes a half dozen deep breaths of the sweet medical air. “I hope you have found peace,” he says.

Then Jimmy’s hands involuntarily clench. The sudden anger that surges through his body surprises him. This should be a moment of trepidation, but his anger continues to grow. Jimmy is not a hater, but the hate is liberating.

He hates Claude Mallett for always fucking with his mind. Claude just wants to humiliate Jimmy. He wants to embarrass Jimmy in front of Anastasia who also realizes that Claude is an asshole. (Non-verbal opinions flow effortlessly when a joint is shared in the alley.) Claude is a petty and jealous little man, a faceless middle manager, whose life is a smear of empty days, neither good nor bad.

He hates himself for tolerating Claude’s transgressions.

Jimmy hates the Transnational Hotel for having a suicide basement. No one apparently considers the steady exodus of dead people from SB 101 to be a problem. The upper management types reason that the hotel is acting judiciously. It’s just business as usual. Isn’t a suicide basement better than having someone plunge off the hotel roof and flatten a pedestrian? The hotel is avoiding potential lawsuits. The hotel is providing a valuable service, and the dead customers will never miss their money. (Of course, the hotel does not share its $40 thousand a night proceeds with those who are assigned to clean SB 101. The hotel does not offer counseling for those who discover the bodies. They don’t properly train the employees who must confront the dead or face humiliation and termination.)

Jimmy hates the first responders, their mouths stuffed with complimentary pastries, who haul away the dead. The police and the first responders are all handed thick envelopes for their time and trouble. But why does Transnational Inc., a successful global enterprise with profits in the billions, need to operate a suicide room?

The answer becomes obvious: Jimmy’s boss is running a rogue operation. Forty thousand dollars a night might be pocket change to the Transnational Hotel, but it’s a fortune (a tax-free fortune!) to Claude and his minions. And Claude has determined that Jimmy is either too stupid to figure it out or too afraid to do anything about it. Jimmy, he believes, will keep his mouth shut over a fear of losing a job that pays an okay salary, has adequate benefits, and offers a moderately attractive stock option after five years of loyal service.

There’s no reason for Jimmy to accept suicide duty. He’s a hard worker and there are other jobs in the city. Maybe there’s more to life than just taking the good with the bad. Jimmy hates himself for indulging in the sin of complacency during his good days. Jimmy understands that sins of omission ultimately lead to perdition, but he needs to show them how they have underestimated him. Redemption can wait.

He withdraws his iPhone from his French blue Transnational jacket. He needs closeups from every possible angle. Since he and the deceased guest (now more a mummy than a human) are entombed in solid rock, sending photos to the cloud is impossible. The photographic evidence, by necessity, will remain safe inside his pocket. But it will be all right. No one will confiscate his iPhone; Claude will be preoccupied with his money scheme and distracted by the expectation that Jimmy is about to soil himself. Jimmy will even clutch his stomach in order to pique Claude’s hopes. It’s a simple plan.

After a dozen snaps Jimmy pauses for a quality check. The eyes and the mouth of the mummy are clearly perceptible. That’s important. The celebrity news show TMZ likes the nitty-gritty. As a matter of fact, the TMZ producers will add red arrows to Jimmy’s photos in order to guarantee that viewers will focus on the shocking details. A red arrow during a routine TMZ segment usually points to the exposed nipple of an inebriated model. Occasionally, if it’s been a slow celebrity news day, a red arrow signals a skanky neck tattoo. (Although Anastasia has no visible tattoos, Jimmy envisions four enigmatic Cyrillic black letters above her left breast. One night she will haltingly reveal their significance. The ensuing tears will culminate in tender passion.)

TMZ pays generously for the photos they use. They pay even extra for videos. The guest, rich enough to afford a $40 thousand room, must have been at least a non-celebrity somebody. Now the deceased guest is a former somebody who is transforming into a mummy.  This is an important story that must be told. Jimmy decides he’ll send TMZ both stills and a video. Jimmy again focuses his iPhone on the body. He overuses the zoom mode while circling the mummy.

After being fired by the Transnational for not respecting the privacy of a guest (even a dead one), another hotel will offer him a job. There are hundreds of upscale hotels in Manhattan. It will all work out. Jimmy will even allow TMZ to use his name. Not disappearing behind a cloak of anonymity will add to the saleability of the photos. Jimmy has nothing to hide except for a few minor run-ins with the law (borrowing a car without permission) when he was an adolescent who never thought about the future. The money he will receive from TMZ might even allow him to survive the next few months without a job. (Jimmy needs to keep some of the rights to his photos but doesn’t want to get involved with a lawyer. Maybe he’ll just ask TMZ for their standard release form.)

Jimmy’s heart slows, his hypothalamus stabilizes, and his anger subsides. The radiance that complements a good day returns and he experiences, if not an epiphany, an acceptable revelation.

Jimmy places his iPhone back into his pocket. The mummy appears smaller than it was only moments before.

“I think I know who you are.”

The mummy did not commit suicide, but it knew the end was near. It desired a peaceful and isolated place to die and found it inside SB 101. What happened to the guest is beginning to happen to many if not all the surviving Neanderthals (hundreds? thousands?) who have evaded extinction for centuries.

There was recently a three-part series on the Unexplained Phenomena Network about Neanderthals. A man and a woman, hiking through the Alps in France, came across a partially decomposed body inside a shepherd’s cave. The couple summoned some villagers who were able to identify the corpse as a local goat farmer, something of a hermit, but friendly enough whenever approached.

The goat farmer continued to rapidly decompose in front of the horrified villagers. In a matter of minutes, the deceased goat farmer turned to ash. The scientists who investigated the phenomena discovered, through a series of DNA tests, that the farmer had been more Neanderthal than human. He was, further testing suggested, not quite a Neanderthal but definitely not a human.

How had this branch of not quite Neanderthals survived undetected all these millenniums? How had they found mates and raised children? Surprisingly few people now seem to care. Even the Unexplained Phenomena Network rarely leads with the latest in Neanderthal news. (The recent discovery of an alien spaceship outside Batavia, New York has also been met with widespread public indifference. It’s classic ghost sightings and throwback exorcisms that are inexplicably trending.) Jimmy himself dozed off during one of the few not quite Neanderthal updates. There tends to be too much technical jargon from the droning experts. The animated renditions of the not quite Neanderthals make them look like unremarkable human beings i.e. boring.

What is beginning to excite the Unexplained Phenomena Network viewers is the fear of accelerated decomposition. Are humans susceptible to not quite Neanderthal diseases? Is a new and deadly virus posed to strike? (Maybe the interest in accelerated decomposition will postpone the impending demise of the Unexplained Phenomena Network. There are plans to repurpose it into a network dedicated to celebrities preparing their favorite meals in a kitchen they helped renovate.)

It is now impossible for the not quite Neanderthals to avoid human detritus. The surviving not quite Neanderthals, are finding it increasing difficult to function in a parallel world. They are physically more sensitive to the proliferation of ravening particles than are anatomically modern humans. Evading the global cloud and its data bolts is impossible. Death is inevitable. Jimmy’s not quite Neanderthal learned about the existence of SB 101 on craigslist and realized that it would be the perfect place to live out its few remaining hours.

The mummy continues to dematerialize before Jimmy’s eyes. What looked like its hands only a moment ago, palms up, accepting the end, are gone. Its eyes are also gone. Dust is spreading across the azure blue sheet.

Perhaps TMZ won’t care about the mummy because of its non-celebrity status, but there must be a museum that will be responsive. Do museums ever engage in bidding wars?

Jimmy just needs to collect a sample of tissue. The scientists will use their million-dollar equipment to prove that not quite Neanderthals are categorically not human. The demise of the not quite Neanderthals does not portend the inevitable end of humans. Museum visitors will pause at the not quite Neanderthal display (Jimmy Cruz’s name will be prominently displayed) knowing that accelerated decomposition is not in their future. For modern humans it’s going to be all right. Death will continue to be slow and painful. The museum goers will then check out the new and improved gift shop.

Jimmy extends his right arm. His fingers, not too steady, are less than an inch from the decaying body.

There’s a stamp sized tissue fragment of the not quite Neanderthal near the pillow. It’s losing its cohesiveness and deteriorating. Jimmy will not be tampering with a human corpse since the corpse is not exactly human. This won’t be a crime. Only human bodies can be desecrated. Jimmy will place the sample in a plastic baggie and then store it inside the breakroom refrigerator. He will consult a boring but respected scientist after work. This is all about science and knowledge. It’s not just about money; it is the right thing to do. The human quest for knowledge is sacrosanct.

Jimmy’s arm involuntarily retracts. He touches the cold crucifix that hangs from his neck, a birthday gift from Mia, his first serious girlfriend. (Jimmy was 17 years old, one year older than Mia. It seems like ages ago.) Mia worried and talked too much about sins large, small, and imaginary. The crucifix is the only piece of jewelry that Jimmy owns. (A sterling silver crucifix should never, however, be considered jewelry.)

“Is it like a lucky charm?” he had said, rubbing the cross as if it were a genie’s lamp. Mia kissed him. “It will remind you that Jesus is always nearby.” Since Mia’s gift, Jimmy has experienced an abundance of good days, but there had been a wealth of good days before he began wearing the crucifix.

Mia, who sensed whenever Jimmy was having a bad day, often joined him for episodes of the UFO Hunters from his supernatural DVD collection. Mia never attributed an unexplained phenomenon to God working in mysterious way. “The supernatural is just stuff people haven’t figured out yet. Jesus is into bigger things.”

Mia told Jimmy during the third episode of the series about her journey to Earth. “It was a rescue mission,” she said. “My parents and me got stranded on Earth. Except for the noise it’s not too different than my home planet near Terzan Four.” A sequence of tiny scars below Mia’s right elbow resembled ancient hieroglyphs. Jimmy thinks Mia and her parents moved to upstate New York during her junior year in high school. One day she was there, and the next she wasn’t. At first, he didn’t miss her too much.

Mia cannot be found on the internet (he searches daily) and no one, except Jimmy, remembers her. Jimmy’s mother confuses Mia with Mona, the girl he took to the senior prom, and thinks the crucifix was a confirmation present from one of his numerous and interchangeable aunts. Jimmy’s memories of Mia are random, mostly good but also sad. She occasionally makes an appearance during one of his bad days, but this is a good day.

He thinks about his grandfather.

Jimmy awkwardly makes the sign of the cross. “I hope you are with Jesus,” he says to the almost Neanderthal who is now just a film of dust.

He deletes the mummy photos from his iPhone, picks up the heavy receiver on the archaic black telephone, and rotates the dial. “There’s no one in SB 101. It looks like no one was ever here.”

Claude Mallett grunts. He is anxious; too many people are aware of his greedy SB 101 venture, and it is only a matter of time before someone talks. It’s possible that there is a mole in his midst. Claude almost forgets to summon a maid who will prepare SB 101 for the next guest.

No one will wonder about the fate of the not quite Neanderthal. The room was paid for in advance and there is no formal checkout protocol. As usual there is no tip.

It’s time for Jimmy’s break. If he hurries, he’ll meet Anastasia and ask her out for pizza and a pitcher of margaritas. He’s certain she will accept. The language barrier will disappear. They will laugh and drink too much. He sees her fingernails, black and shiny. She touches his hand. He feels her darkness grow lighter.

Although bad days are patiently waiting nearby, they will not be accompanied by more pain than Jimmy Cruz can endure.


BIO: Leland Neville lives in upstate New York. His short stories have appeared in Sobotka Literary Magazine, Storgy Magazine, Space Squid, and The Barcelona Review.