20 KARL ‘MADMAN’ MUNDT
Barton Fink, 1991, USA, Director Joel Cohen
All right, Charlie shouldn’t have killed those people the way he did yet I can’t say I minded the guy when I knew him. After he set fire to the Hotel Eagle and when we were all told he was a mass murderer that carried around the heads of his victims, well, then I guess everyone felt differently about him. His real name was Karl Mundt. The ‘Madman’ nickname came from the cops. Can’t say I ever figured big Charlie for a German. The truth is that Charlie did me a favour because, after the fire, I was given a job in the Hotel Grand. I went downtown but up in the world, I used to say. Because of what happened in the Hotel Eagle, the folks at the Hotel Grand felt sorry for me, I reckon. The first thing I said to them was that they weren’t going to regret their decision. I ain’t the smartest but I can recognise a lucky break. I didn’t say that to them, of course. And they didn’t have regrets which was one of the reasons why I picked up the motel franchise later. Apart from Pete, our elevator man, we all got jobs right away after the fire and we all moved to other hotels. Poor Pete never worked again but he shouldn’t have been working anyway. I said to the others in the Eagle, one of these days a guest is going to press the button on the elevator and what they’ll find is poor Pete lying dead there on the floor. It didn’t happen which was lucky considering how old Pete was and that we had a mass murderer roaming around the hotel, under our very noses so to speak.
But before Charlie set fire to the Eagle, most days he wasn’t a problem, and, remember, a lot of the time he wasn’t there because Charlie was a travelling man. Most of the time he’d be out somewhere in California selling insurance or so we thought. He was doing something, and don’t we know it now. I’ll admit Charlie could be moody. Charlie had his quiet days when he had this look in his eyes but most of the time he was friendly. That look, though, was something to remember. Thinking about it now, knowing what was written about Charlie Meadows in the papers, reading about this guy called Karl ‘Madman’ Mundt’, remembering those looks gives me shivers, I can tell you. But if I had to pick a guy to have me buy a beer I would pick Charlie any time over that writer guy Barton Fink that lived in the next room to Charlie. Barton Fink was in the news as much as Charlie Meadows because he wrote scripts for the people in Hollywood and because he could talk plenty.
That Fink guy was polite enough but if ever a smile appeared on his face, I missed it. Charlie would ask you how you were doing. I didn’t even get the time of day from that Barton Fink. I don’t even understand what he was doing in the Hotel Eagle. A Hollywood scriptwriter, he could have had a room in the Grand. Man, he could have had a whole floor to himself. Instead he was in the Eagle giving me a dog’s life about the peeling wallpaper. We had a problem with the wallpaper because of the heat melting the adhesive. I knew it, and no one liked it happening but it got to this Barton Fink guy big style, like he was frightened he’d discover something behind the wallpaper. If it had annoyed me as much as it did this Barton Fink, I would have skedaddled to the Grand like pronto.
All my life I’ve lived in Los Angeles. My whole life. And all my life I’ve been in the hotel business. There was a time I wanted to be a writer myself but my work meant I was always busy attending people. I have stories. Things happen in hotels but not many get burnt down by a mass murderer. That was a first. The block where the Eagle used to be is now a parking lot. I used to swap stories with Charlie. Of course I know now that Charlie had even more stories he could have told me and compared to those stories mine didn’t amount to much because I ain’t killed nobody and I wasn’t walking around with someone’s head in a briefcase. Nevertheless, though, Charlie always listened to the stories I told. Charlie was polite that way. He was interested in people which I suppose you have to be if you go to the trouble of killing them and carrying round their heads.
In this business you talk to people and you hear things and that’s on the good days. On the bad days you see what you don’t want to remember. Old Hank Hoffman, who was also on the payroll at the Eagle, was ahead of me in the motel business. He insisted that the Black Dahlia dame had been bumped off in his motel and said there were cops that thought he had a point. I know Hank had to clear a hell of a lot of blood out of one of his bedrooms. He did this before calling the police which you wouldn’t do these days. Hank first thought the couple had just been rough with each other. And maybe they had and the dame was nothing to do with the Black Dahlia because you do see some strange people in the hotel business.
As soon as I had my first motel franchise, I said to Myrtle my wife, this motel thing isn’t going to be no Hotel Grand high life. Myrtle, I said, if we don’t want to be running budget motels for the rest of our lives we’re going to have to work hard and make sacrifices. Chet, no budget Motel 6 franchise for us, she said. These days Myrtle and me run a classy motel but it’s meant hard work getting out to Palm Springs, I can tell you. And I wouldn’t have done it without Myrtle. She used to do the laundry at the Eagle but I got her the job at the Grand after the big fire, I’m not sure what would have happened to me without Myrtle. I know I wouldn’t have been wearing clean shirts every day.
Pete came over to see me at the Grand. The poor guy was living on a pension, so I made sure he got a slap up lunch on the house. To be honest Pete looked as if he needed it but then he always did, even when he was working the elevator at the Eagle which was why I always expected to find him dead on the floor. The idea for getting a motel came from Pete. Chet, get out of the hotels and get out of LA, said Pete. Palm Springs ain’t really LA, so I like to think I did both. I asked Pete did he ever get bored working the elevator. Pete may have just had a slap up meal on the house but he wasn’t cheerful. I couldn’t stand the Hotel Eagle and I hate Los Angeles, he said. Fair enough, I thought. Living and working in this town is purgatory, said Pete. Charlie did the right thing setting fire to the Hotel Eagle. Send the damned place to hell where it belonged. I did remind Pete that Charlie shouldn’t have gone round killing those people and collecting their heads the way he did. At least Pete and me were agreed on that.
But the man talked gloomy, even if being miserable didn’t seem to bother him none. Pete had a problem with the elevator, well not what anyone else would call a problem. But I helped Pete put a few Scotches under his belt and gave him a cigar to smoke and he talked. Pete kept going on about how the Hotel Eagle was purgatory and that we had our own devil in the place and were too dumb to notice. I could have said how were we supposed to notice, especially as Charlie Meadows always talked pleasant but I didn’t. Instead I let Pete talk and tell me how much he hated riding the elevator day after day.
LA, the Hotel Eagle, all of it, it’s one big purgatory, said Pete. I don’t see it that way, I said, and I certainly wouldn’t have seen it that way after a big slap up cost nothing meal although I didn’t say that. Each to his own, I suppose. I didn’t have to go up and down every day in the same elevator. It’s like travelling between heaven and hell except you never get there, said Pete. Woah, I thought. All these faceless and damned souls, said Pete, one after another getting in the elevator and making me take them to somewhere where they could rest and wait for another day in purgatory. I wasn’t saying much at this point. I did think, though, of something Myrtle once said. Every morning in the motel, she said, the two of us straighten the pillows, pump them into shape and shake out what the guests’ heads have left behind. Left behind? I said. Something of their guilty conscience, said Myrtle. When she said it, I thought of Pete right away who by then had died and by all accounts left nothing.
If Pete wasn’t a barrel of laughs, that day, I thank him for talking about hotels and Los Angeles the way he did. Without it I doubt I would have pushed for the motel franchise or worked so hard to make it out here to Palm Springs. I have seen Barton Fink once or twice. I think he was just visiting friends from the movie business. I heard Fink had some kind of breakdown after he found out what happened to his family. We didn’t speak. If Fink had smiled or shook hands, it might have been different. Myrtle and me don’t have the money of the folk round here but we’re comfortable in our small home at the back of the motel and we like to sit on the porch and look at the mountains. We do, though, sometimes miss the sea, you know, waves and sitting on the beach and staring out at the horizon.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.