Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Pitch Black Room

It was two AM; it seemed like it was always two AM during those years I owned a studio. I always had far too much work for money, and the daytime was reserved for the non paying customers, musicians trying to hit the jackpot. So overnights were all I had left to cover the expense of my partner's dreams; that we'd one day break a record contract with one of his apprentices and all my labors recording and mixing industrial media would have been worth it.

The building had been a small hardware store originally, it's only windows, street side. We'd bought it as a media co-op, myself, a director, a couple photogs, programmers and writers. My part of the space was far from streetside, a 20 yard walk from the front door down a long hallway. I'd taken a third of the square footage in the form of a single room that must have been where screens and tires were fixed, the warehouse area. It was perfect in size and shape, but with linoleum tile floor and block walls, too "alive" in it's raw state; so we covered the walls in insulation and cheap fabrics, and built a few sound reflectors to create movable walls when needed.

The control room had been an office, a bit too small for equipment and clientèle; so we kicked out a wall and expanded forward into the studio room, containing the door to the basement stair in the process. For some reason I had this grand idea that the window between one and the other should be the size of a house, perhaps a testosterone thing, I'm not sure. The glass was four feet tall by eight feet wide in the end; great for seeing all the action beyond during sessions, but a giant black hole when the studio was unlit.

And now it was two AM, and the black hole was as pitch. I may have mentioned my fear of the dark, a transient thing that I sometimes need to simply grit my teeth and control in order to get anything accomplished in my life. One 2 AM in the studio was fine, and the next, done with sweaty palms. I just forced myself to deal with it as I could hardly tell a client "Hey sorry, I missed your deadline but it was dark and I was afraid of monsters; I'm sure you understand."

The room itself was done in dark earth tones, the lighting, moody if not downright unusable. The equipment itself was black and then there was the window. It's interesting what the subconscious will do with peripheral images...as example, how would it know the reflection on black glass that keeps moving around in the backwash of my eyes is actually me, and not some guy demon behind the glass doing some voodoo dance to attract my attention, to be followed by his head peeling back and showing his bare skull or some such if I actually did look up.

Like I said, it was rare it even occurred to me there might be a demon behind the glass so it was no big deal. But this night, this night started at 2 AM and didn't end for quite some time.

I was fond of loud, so it was my SOP to have my mixing board cranked up all the time, feeding maximum signal to a few thousand watts of clean power and into these massive speakers we'd had custom made and built into the walls. I spose again it's some penis thing as nearly everything a male does seems to be influenced by his penis, but I can't say for sure.

In any case it was an industrial soundtrack mix I'd come in for, a voiceover describing how the company in question was nearly Godlike in all ways, and then the appropriate thumpy, horn blasting, hip classical, movie music would be layered under...my particular specialty.

The voiceover had been done by a local legend, Tom Barnard. You've heard him, no matter where you live. For years he flew to both coasts recording movie previews and McDonald spots; one year was the voice on seven of the fourteen major sponsors commercials during the Olympics, a feat that made him rich enough to stop commuting altogether. Let's say his voice is that of God, with throat cancer; deep as the grand canyon, raspy as a cheap steel file.

I'd recorded him during the afternoon, and now had to edit. Understand, this was 1979; recording was done on tape, editing done with a wax pencil to make the spot, and a razor blade to zip out the offending portion. It was tedious, but I was a master so it went pretty fast, I just had to be in the mood.

So as I walked into the studio at 2 AM, just that tiny bit on edge I sometimes am at first when walking into a cavern without bright lights or windows to the real world, I swept through my beginning routines without even taking my coat off. Master power on, tape reel spun into place and leadered, editing block and tape moved into place and tape deck started as I would listen to a few paragraphs to put me in that special place between art and crass commercialism, where my best work was done. It was sort of my standard flourish I guess, a middle finger tossed off to my fears, ignoring the tingling in my spine and shouting "AHA" like a Monty Python character might to a Frenchman.

One last note, I'd been working on a job that afternoon that had required me to lower the tape speed as quality was far less an issue than expense. I did it so rarely that it's no wonder I didn't remember.

As I slipped off my coat, my back to the black hole, the voice began. Imagine the deepest voice you've ever heard, in slow motion, half time actually. Now play it at 120 decibels, about the volume of a jet passing overhead so close you can jump up and tap the fuselage.

Had I not already been mostly bald...

There's this feeling I get that maybe everyone else experiences in exactly the same way and we've just never told each other. It's pretty close to those times when I've tried to change a light fixture without flipping off the breaker because the basement's just too far away. It's that jolt of electricity after which you still tingle, and quickly check yourself out to make sure you're not smoking from any orifice.

I can't say for certain that in the split second decision to whip around and hit any switch that would end the terror, was a voice that said "remember, the black hole is that way too"; but I'm betting it was there. I did hit the switch, the voice did stop, and my mind's eye did catch the (perhaps) reflected movement slightly stage left (maybe it was a monster), and I suffered the same shock again only this time it nearly sat me down as my legs couldn't take the banging together.

It might have been a half hour before I regained my composure. Of course I wanted to turn on more lights, but the studio lights were actually out of the control room, down a little hall and then reach your hand into the pitch dark of a room so large any number of miscreant malevolencies could have been lurking; so I put that on hold for the time being.

It's always been a bit of a contest anyway, a sort of "you're too damn old for this fetish so open that door and fling yourself into the dungeon because if you don't I will shame you forever and ever." Otherwise I'd simply acknowledge I have this childish perhaps, but nevertheless real neurosis, and just turn the freaking lights on when I enter a room just in case, shame be damned.

Well, too late now, did I mention it was 2 AM? Well just about then I start smelling this odd smell, though it was hard to tell through the cigarette smoke I was chaining together like a squall line of serious angst. It was a little rotten eggy or I'd not have paid it any attention at all, but that being the nasal color of natural gas, I thought I should at least follow it a moment. Wouldn't ya know it, it led to the basement door; a basement that had a light switch certainly, but one I'd need to open the door to reach and it was about that time I noticed that it wasn't really eggy at all, but sulphuric, as if someone had been lighting match books because they'd been walled into the basement like some Amontillado thing and all they had to keep them warm was a stack of matchbooks with that draw Winky contest printed on them. Or maybe it was a gate to hell that just opened at the foot of the stairs; I couldn't decide without opening the door to take a look and if it was Asmodeus... that would have really spooked me.

Well that kinda did it, I was really unnerved now and walked back to behind my desk doing my best to not catch my reflection in the window. I stood there wondering what to do, as my deadline wouldn't wait, but my heart pounding in my throat was making it tough to breathe and I was a little worried about being found face up, eyes wide in the morning; just one more young heart attack victim to add to Journal of Medicine statistics.

I stood there, paralyzed, torn between business reality and my reality, as fantasy as it is. And then something really strange happened.

From the pitch black studio room came a sound like no other.

Let's say you find this cymbal and next to it is a hammer and a little sign says "break the cymbal, win a prize." So you grab the hammer and you lift it behind you, rock back on your feet and then with every muscle in your body you steer that hammer into its upward arc and drive down on the handle with an extra push on the last few inches until contact with the thin metal of the noisemaker is complete.

And it rings and it rings and it rings and it rings......

I didn't know I could scream; well in fact, I couldn't. I did scream but all that came out was this weird airy sound, like emphysema patients wheeze when they sleep. I had to look of course, directly into the pitch black window, directly into my reflected face, it's jaw open, eyes half shut, skin stretched taught, funny noise emanating, vision. I screamed a few times I'm sure, not that it helped much. I also had lost my footing and was now seated, my joints locked in place, my head pounding so hard I was sure there was a crowd inside my skull banging on locked exit doors trying to escape the inferno within.

Yea sure, I rationalized. We'd been in the process of moving, stuff was boxed and stacked and otherwise strewn about. Maybe a cymbal had been set in an uncomfortable place and just decided that at 2 AM it would jump from wherever it was and hit the floor, standing on it's side so that it's little rivets could vibrate a half hour or two. Maybe it just wanted to crash one last time before we left the building; Should auld acquaintance be forgot....

Another 20 minutes maybe and I admitted the obvious. There was no way I'd be finishing that mix that night. It was time to go and the only trouble was that I had to walk toward the pitch black room wherein the cymbal lie at rest (for the moment), the door swung wide open, leaking its pitch blackness into the hallway, just to get to the alarm system in a tiny closet across from that very room.

Another ten minutes maybe and I'd worked up the courage to just do it, to walk the few feet and turn the key, and then turn, back to the pitch black room, and walk down the quarter block long, dimly lit narrow hallway with it's 18 foot ceilings making it all too much like a Wonderland kind of experience.

I don't do horror flicks often, for obvious reasons; but I can't always ignore their promos which have in some cases been the grist of nightmares for years thereafter. Well at the time there were a few that showed either beings or objects flying down long, poorly lit, high ceilinged corridors in search of the next living thing to snatch, knock to the floor and drag screaming back into pitch black rooms with waiting cymbals and God knows what else.

So every step was an eternity, a constant fight with myself to not break into a run and destroy any vestige of personal pride left in me. I thought about just walking backward, but of course, "behind me" is relative; no matter how I did it, there would always be a "behind me."

Obviously I made it outside and to the safety of 3 AM streets in a college neighborhood of a large city, and for the next few minutes I stared at the glass door I'd just locked and visualized all manner of beast slam up against it from the inside, all foiled by my clever and hurried escape. I didn't really see anything and yes, I knew that, (like I’ve said I'm not actually crazy, just...odd) but my imagination played the grisly scene over and over as if it were trying to vent the abject fear that had built up for an hour by spinning supernatural sights until the venom had all been spent.

I spent the night in a diner, well lit, plenty of company and coffee. I didn't go home until day had sprung from dawn, and I slept on the couch just to confuse the spooks in case they'd followed me home and hidden in my bedroom closet. I couldn't sleep long as I did have that deadline, and when I got back to work, I did find a cymbal laying on the floor; though how it got there I couldn't explain for the life of me.

It's all 25 years behind me now, we moved from that building soon after and I hadn't even thought about that night until the first time I wrote a version of this tale a couple years ago. I do once in a great while pass through that neighborhood, and I just can't resist driving by our old building, now a mom and pop candy factory. But when I pass it at night, I rarely take the dare and actually stare into the pitch black, glass door as I pass; perhaps afraid that whatever chased me that night is still inside, and my urge to drive by is no urge at all, but a response to a calling.

Well, not really; but it sounds great in print.

Now, if I can just move from this chair, make my way to the door, flip out the light and shut the door fast enough to stop the spooks without crushing my hand in the process, all this story telling would have been worth it. Wish me luck, the electricity's already surging.

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