Alan Catlin

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One: Room #641

How does the worst nightmare of your life begin?

It begins outside Room 641 in the Martha Washington Hotel for Women once the policemen from Midtown South Manhattan precinct cut the yellow DO NOT CROSS tape that sealed mother's room from June until the day after Labor Day in 1985.  The room was sealed, by law, as her death was an unattended one. A death by natural causes. A death she didn’t believe in. “There is no death in life,” she often said. Or was it no life in death?  Even now, it is difficult to tell which she believed.  Or if there was a difference between the two.

Nor did she believe in the cancers.  Several of them.  One would have been enough to kill a normal person. But there was never anything normal about her. Never was, never would be.

The nightmare continues as the hotel manager, Mr. Lopez, unlocks the red painted fire door and leaves me to salvage what I will from what had been locked inside.  I've had to pay the weekly rate the whole time the Letters of Administration papers were being processed for the estate. Weeks of what seemed to us as senseless waiting.

It was a  reasonable room by the week, but still more than I was paying for my mortgage. More than I could afford. And for what?  What could she have in this room?  Certainly, no money. She hadn’t worked in what? Years? Many years. Still, we paid. What choice did we have? It wasn’t the hotel’s fault  she had died there and they deserved to be paid.

And it wouldn't be easy: getting those papers, getting here, getting inside this room.  Nothing would be easy. Not in New York. Not anywhere she had ever been.

Inside Room 641.  It could be a  movie, a noir horror. A low budget things- that-go-bump-in-the-night movie.  Larger than life. But no one would believe it.  Who could?

I look at what has been stored there, look at the vague shapes in this place, kept dark by layers of black curtains, crepe and gauze, dusty and torn, a shade pulled down behind them, stained and yellowed by age.
And in the dimness I see the outline of what she left behind: the mounds of stuff, the waste, the unimaginable junk of her life scattered about in this small, confining room.

And the smell of it.

Oh, the smell of it: decay, and dust and dirt and death sealed in without air all summer long.

This is where she died.  The Fact of it real now: sensual, oppressive, horrific; everything I ever feared at any level: primal, subconscious, conscious, piled in one space and left for me and me, to sort through and deal with if I can. 

And I must sort and deal; somewhere amid all this junk, this shit, there are the legal paper:, documents, accounts, stuff I needed to settle the estate.  All I had to do was find it.            

Finding it is like looking for a treasure in a junkyard, in an open dump, like the ones they used to have on Long Island by the polluted river and by the inlet where I grew up. In those days,  before there were laws about health risks, contamination spread from these open pits of waste products.  Oh! the adventure of playing there amid the discarded ruins of other people's lives with the rats and the wild cats, the feral and the mangy, the scavenger birds who roosted and attacked, defending what was theirs….. And now I had my very own place just like that. But, this one was indoors, and the wrecked life I would be sifting through was more intimate, not entirely my own, but close enough.

Try to imagine something worse than this, knowing there is always something worse. I know I can't imagine what that might be. Whatever it is, if it exists, I don't want to know what it is, what it looks like, who it belongs to.  My own ruin, my own signature graveyard is enough for me.

And we haven't even begun looking, begun sifting the piles, opening the envelopes, the bags, the boxes.  Have not yet begun to record the notes, the information, the source material for what would become my personal plague year.  


A Plague of Objects:

A darkness that surrounds, that inhabits

Inside the darkness, a gooseneck lamp, a reading lamp that works

A lamp that shines, that haloes the piles of junk, the detritus of living in darkness

The detritus of living in darkness: on the yellow, speckled counter top, wrinkled papers bags

Lunch bags folded over, enclosing the contents

Of rows of these bags each to be opened in succession

Containing: unfiltered cigarette ends of various brands, different lengths and their ashes

hard pack cigarette case inner liners: the silver ones and the gold, carefully folded and  laid out for further use,

for the inscriptions

lost keys, hundreds of single keys and not one lock

       stale saltine crackers

       protein: dead cockroaches, hundreds of them, picked, dried and ready for consumption

Though I wasn't aware that's what the roaches were for, then, now I know they were for consumption as food, as sustenance.

Now that I  have read what was in the other, larger brown bags: the unsent letters, journals, palimpsestuous writings: the regimen and the world view, I know many such things I was better off not knowing.

But they were written for a reason and I feel compelled to see if I can find what that reason might be.  Feel compelled to read on, though I sense this is not the sort of reading one should do when the author is as deranged as this one was, and that author was the person who gave you birth.

It occurs to me, many years later, that knowing I would read them and what the effect would be, was calculated in advance; was the whole point of having been written at all.

I had been such a disappointment in so many ways especially on Planets X and Y, the ones that so closely resembled this one.


Chosen at random, I read the Words according to BJC as written on the back of a letter to me. A letter that was crossed out, scribbled upon, doodled over by the left handed and the right handed persons of the self.  The signatures practiced, the names, none I know.  I wondered if I should have known them.  What they might mean.  Maybe nothing.  Maybe everything.  It doesn't matter anymore, does it?


The Words

meat-portion large enough to eat (names scribbled nearby R Capulet.  J Montague)


potion-Romeo and Juliet poison-families (J Capulet  R Montenegro)

portion-many crumbs

loaf-many crumbs and/slices of bread; baked flour

food-to feed flesh and blood

feed-to eat of

to eat of-to feed

eat-erode; CONSUME

erosion-illiterate use of

corrode------as applied

corrosion-usually applied to metals: also as applied


activation-beginning; start

beginnings-the first

start-start up your motor



copra-dried coconut meat generally shredded

nutmeat-generally ground for flavoring

mince meat-corned currants

currants-fruits dried

















(indecipherable) erroneously applied to soil

knowledge-historical facts

fact-historical truths

air reduction-had dry ice-supplies unlikely but not impossible




Okay, I thought, that's how it was.  On those days she wrote and crossed out, added, deleted, refined; some "historical facts" re-mastered in this codex from a different time: her job working for Air Reduction, the time she spent as personal secretary to two British men, Executives in an Import Export Business specializing in Copra from South East Asia,
as a Dietician to the Gods.

I felt as if I were reading pyramidal texts from some above ground crypt composed as a New York City Book of the Dead; the arcane, memorabilia trinkets for this world, the other world and the next, unearthed.  In Room 641.

I felt overwhelmed.  Felt the need to see beyond this room, for something like fresh air.  I pushed aside the layers of black curtains, tried to raise the lone window in this room, pushed as hard as I could and knew this window had not been open for a hundred years.  Or more.

I saw where she had tried cleaning the grime, the dirt, and soot so that she might look out on the street below.  All she succeeded in doing was smearing the layers. I looked out as she must have. saw people moving outside and I felt as she must have felt; despairing. longing, loss…

There wasn’t enough Scotch in all of Manhattan to completely drown that feeling.

And there never would be.

Room 641 is the first chapter of a memoir with poetry.  I see the project as two books that I intend to publish together, under the title Books of the Dead. The first, longer part is The New York City Book of the Dead and it has to do with the death and life of my mother in a hotel room in New York City. I say death and life, as it examines her life after her death, in terms of the stuff she left behind in the room she died in. The idea is to create a regressive portrait, in pieces, that create a whole, once a larger context is provided.  As she was a schizophrenic, what used to be called, Mixed Undifferentiated, there are so many loose fragments it is almost impossible to complete the entire picture any other way. The second part is A Central Florida Book of the Dead and is about the deaths of my father and step-mother.  The approach is entirely different as is the writing, as different as the suburban sprawl and complete absurdity of Florida is from a hell hole in New York City.  I am contemplating publishing this as a book myself, either as e-nook or paper back or both, as no one will take it one otherwise. Thoughts, pro or con about the project? Please contact me at