The HaHa Hotel
At least, that’s what we called it. We’d always called it that, as long as anyone could remember.
It wasn’t quite big enough to be a military base, not secure enough to be a prison, not insane enough to be an asylum… it had the lacklustre regularity that suggested it was a government building lost in the blackhole of bureaucracy. The power stayed on, fluorescents that had been on longer than the young ones had been alive.
Water that ran, sometimes with rust… but still, someone was paying the utilities. Someone was at least accidentally looking after us. There were coin operated washing machines that mostly still worked, cash boxes broken, the same dozen quarters, despite constant disappearing and reappearing were used over and over again. George Washington looked on tiredly, as he popped out from behind an ear.
The diamond tiles were old, discoloured, cracked and crazed, water stained and worn.
All built in the shadow of a clover shaped interchange. Three rings of darkness to look out on. A garden filled with strays, ferals, untamed things.
I don’t even know when it started, how it started, but it did. Word got out to a certain type of person, the type that would need it, pitched as a sort of retreat, a last chance, a last resort.
It was the ultimate trial by fire. You got out, or you watched your dreams die. Then suffered the torment of watching those same dreams die in others. It was like an infinite loop of people getting out of a tiny car, with the rare one escaping by cannon.
And we didn’t really help ourselves, tripping over giant, clumsy feet, cutting off our noses to spite our faces…
We were pallid and pale, eyes big and red under a big topped roof.
The local Amish helped – they’d drop in food, help with the our own poor gardens, tend our burns as we attempted to juggle cooking on top of everything else. Bland, rubbery chicken was common.
We were always on the tightrope – the edge of starvation. The building decaying around us, while our minds decayed within us.
Trapped in a box within a box.
This was where laughter went to die.
Where untended flowers dripped water onto old eulogies.
This was the clown’s graveyard.
We called it the HaHa Hotel. It was the last joke many would tell.
This was a challenge given to me by fellow author Dean Barker – he gave me just the title and no other restrictions. I spent a bit of time getting the feel of the title, going through potential options and connections. I decided on the dark clown option partly because it connects with a short film that I’ve been trying to put together for about a decade, and partly because, despite being a little cliché, I liked the irony of it.
Knowing that it was cliche, I needed to do something to make it a bit different: so I decided to use as much clown imagery as I could, hopefully in a manner that didn’t make it too obvious that it was about clowns, until the reveal. This also informed the length of the piece – it needed to be short enough that when they got to the end, if they wanted to go back and reread it for the clown stuff, they could without it feeling like a chore.
I actually had figured out a lot more of the story and background (the building is cold war era – designed to house displaced civilians in the event of nuclear attack. Management lost in paperwork and agency changes/name changes – so Army, but should be FEMA…) I wanted it to come across as more asylum like, with a healthy dash of decay (think of urban explorers in abandoned buildings…)
I really like it how it is, but I am tempted to try a long form of it at some point, but really, I think it will change it too much.