A GUEST AT THE INN
by Jeremy Lane
The words floated into the back of his mind, barely registering, as he trudged down the cold hallway of the hospital. The second time it stopped him. “Young man?” Clark, in his exhaustion, peered up at the clock on the wall; now thirty-two hours without sleep. His scalp tingled, and his mind came and went like the beam from a lighthouse. He turned, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup, and walked slowly toward an open room on his right.
In the exact center of the room sat a silver haired woman, covered to the waist with a quilt, and her hands resting primly on her lap. “Oh, young man,” she said, waving to him with one arm. “I’d like to order some room service. I was hopin’ you might save me from botherin’ with the phone. Do you mind?” Clark stood silent, and then stammered in his response. “Uh, well, I…”
“A sandwich. Ham on wheat, if you could. Oh, and some lemonade. Gosh, lemonade sounds good, doesn’t it?”
Clark turned in time to see a young nurse, blonde and dressed in blue scrubs, exiting a few doors down. “One moment,” he said, and then went after the nurse. He did his best to explain the request to her as she smiled knowingly. “I’ll get the sandwich,” she said when he was done.
“And the lemonade?”
“Yes and the lemonade.”
He reappeared in the doorway, and with a smile said “Your order is in, ma’am. Your food should be here shortly.” Before he could turn to leave, she waved to him again. “Why don’t you come in? Have a seat.” Clark bought time with another sip of coffee, and then stepped in hesitantly. He sat gently in a brown vinyl chair just inside the door, and crossed one leg over the other.
“How long have you worked at this inn?” she asked, a frown forming in anticipation of her answer.
“Well, actually, I…”
“It’s not bad, this one. A bit plain, a little cold, but nice enough,” she said, interrupting him. Clark nodded and took another sip.
Not the nicest I’ve seen, though,” she continued. “When I was a girl my father took me to New Orleans. I was only five, but I can still see it like it was yesterday.” She clutched her chest with one hand, gave a half-smile, and shook her head gently. “What a place. Giant white columns all along the front. The most amazing chandeliers all over. Every bellhop dressed for a ball.” She narrowed her eyes at him and learned forward. “More than I can say for you, mister.”
“I’m off duty,” Clark replied with a grin. “My wife just had a baby.”
Her eyes widened with delight as she took a long breath. “Congratulations, sir. How incredibly exciting. The name?”
“A girl,” he said proudly, “Daisy.”
She became visibly excited; her motions more animated.
“I love the name Daisy. My best friend growin’ up-her name was Daisy. I was always envious of her name. I tried to buy it, trade for it, all kinds a’ nonsense. Never worked.”
“And what’s the name you were in such a hurry to get rid of?” Clark asked.
“Emelia,” she responded, offering her hand.
He leaned forward and shook her hand gently. “Nice to meet you, Emelia. I’m Clark. And I don’t think you should have been trying to trade that name away. It’s lovely.” Her cheeks flushed red, and she looked away.
“Clark, before you go, could you do me one more favor?”
He nodded, and sat his cup down on the floor next to him. “Of course.”
“Could you put some fresh water in these flowers?” she asked, pointing toward a narrow wooden table beside the hospital bed, where sat a clear, hourglass shaped vase with bright yellow tulips. “I always leave them for the next guests. Somethin’ I’ve done all my life.”
Clark rose, filled a cup with water from the sink, and walked over to fill the vase. He noticed a five by seven picture frame propped against the wall; it held a photo, black and white, of a young girl leaning into a middle aged man; they looked at each other rather than the camera.
“My father and me,” she said, noticing his stare.
She was young, six or seven he guessed, wearing a cotton dress to the ankles and no shoes. Her father, squatting next to her, appeared tall and thin, suspenders draped over a button shirt. His hair was dark, healthy and manicured. They shared the same nose.
“Great picture,” Clark said after a few seconds.
She sighed. “To think, I was once someone’s little girl. Amazing, isn’t it. It all goes away so fast. People, time, life. So fast.”
He turned to look at her. Her hair, long and healthy in the photo, was now white and brittle. Her skin was thin, like a water balloon, the blood coursing just below the surface. He eyes, he thought to himself, her eyes were the same; perfectly white around a blue center. “Great picture,” he said again. “I better be going.”
“Thank you for your help,” she said, nodding.
“Enjoy your stay, Emelia.”
“I will. I have. Thank you, Clark.” He turned a headed for the door. “Be sure the next guest gets my flowers,” she said as he left the room.
On his way to the elevator Clark passed a nurse pushing a food cart, and spotted a sandwich, made with wheat bread, resting next to a glass of lemonade. He rode to the second floor, where in the last room of a long corridor, he found his wife awake. “There you are,” she said with a tilt of her head. He walked over to his new daughter and careful not to wake her, touched one finger to the top of her head.
The closing of a door woke Clark from an awkwardly positioned sleep. He sat forward, rubbed his eyes, and was surprised to find the clock showing three hours had past since he sat down. A nurse peeked at the baby, and then walked over to tend his wife.
“Looks like we’re gonna get you a more comfortable room,” she whispered. “Maybe your husband can get some rest.”
Clark followed as his wife and baby were wheeled to the elevator, down to a different floor, and into a new room. He was the last to enter, and after sitting down his bags, he walked over to have another look at his new daughter. Just before he reached her something caught the corner of his eye. There, on a table next to the bed, sat a clear vase filled with yellow tulips; one wilted petal having fallen to the ground.
I’ve often found it interesting the way the weather can affect one’s mood. I speak mainly of myself, as winter has always given me the worst of the blues. The trees, gray, naked, encircled by the crunchy yellow remnants of spring’s beautiful green grass stand sadly below a dreary gray sky. In Texas, where the sun seems to burn hotter and brighter than any place in the world, the chill comes fast and hard. Every year since I was a young child the first cold snap of winter has created in me a foreboding that increases each day until the sun reappears in late February. There was one winter-that of my twenty-second year-that did not have such an impact. That year, in fact, I barely noticed the cold at all.
It started at the little diner in downtown Bluff Dale. ‘Downtown’ being a loosely used term, of course, as I noticed quickly that Bluff Dale barely had enough town to be down in. There is only a road, nicely paved, from which several unpaved roads snake to the north and south, a deer processing plant that stills stands only by the grace of God, and a small, white house, completely gutted, that now serves as the only eatery around.
It was late November and I sat alone with two bites of a large, greasy hamburger, the rest of which sat in my gut like a brick. The bell on the door jingled when she walked in. There was nothing fancy about her that day, or any day for that matter. She wore an oversized cotton sweater, black wind pants, and her sandy brown hair was pulled into a messy ponytail. She was beautiful in a way I had never seen. I wondered if she had just woken up.
I assumed the woman with her was her mother as they both passed my table and sat down two rows to my left. It was then that I noticed; her lips, thin and a pale pink, stunned me. I must have stared too long, and she gave her mother an awkward grin. I glanced away quickly, only to return my gaze a few seconds later. Again she spotted me. Thankful that I already had my check, I took a last sip of water and headed for the counter.
“Hi,” she said after my first two steps. “Do we know each other?”
“Sorry,” I replied in a low voice. “You looked familiar. I didn’t mean to stare.”
That she didn’t believe me was all too evident. She introduced me to her mother, Lillian, and then revealed her own name: Lucy Tanner.
“Gabriel Alexander,” I replied, and shook their hands. “Gabe.”
“You from around here, Gabe?” she asked. Her voice was heavy without being masculine.
“Dallas. Student at SMU.”
“Major?” her mother asked.
“Journalism. I’m actually headed to Stephenville to interview some landowners for a school assignment. Apparently runoff from neighboring dairies is ruinin’ the land.”
I understood how uninteresting it was as soon as it escaped my mouth, and I couldn’t help but smile. “Big news,” I said, and we all laughed.
“Enjoy your lunch, ma’am,” I said to her mother. “Lucy.”
She grinned a bit before I walked away, and again I was looking at her lips. They were a perfect shade.
The interviews I conducted that afternoon were taxing. They were hard, aging people who either had no interest in being interviewed, or were so ecstatic to voice their complaints that I rarely got to ask a question. I finished up as the sun was going down, jumped into my car, and headed for the city. There was something about this part of Texas, I thought to myself. The homes were small, old, and most in need of repair. I wondered about the people inside. Were they happier here? Life is just life, I told myself. No matter where you are.
Two hours later I was re-entering my dorm. I never did get used to the smell. It wasn’t our fault; my roommate and I were uncommonly tidy for single, college age males. It was the building, or perhaps the dark red carpet covering the floor, worn and long past it’s useful age, that emitted a permanent odor. The message machine was blinking. One new message.
“Gabe, hi. Uh, I hope it’s ok. I called the school and got your number.” I knew the voice right away. It was the girl from the diner. Lucy Tanner.
“Anyway, uh, I didn’t know if you might be back in the area anytime soon. I’m staying with my parents for a while. So, I guess, call me if you want.” I heard rustling as she went to hang up the phone. “Oh, it’s Lucy. From today.”
It was an inconvenience that she had forgotten to leave her number. It angered me; I desperately wanted to talk with her again. I sat on the edge of my twin bed, phone in hand, and thought of what to do next. It was a small town. Surely the number of people with her last name would amount to a manageable call list. I grabbed paper and a pen from the desk in the corner of the room, returned to the bed, and dialed information. The third number given to me produced a familiar voice. It was Lucy’s mother.
“Is Lucy available?” I asked.
“May I tell her who’s calling?”
“It’s Gabriel. From lunch today?” I responded with some embarrassment.
“Ah, the reporter. How’d the interviews go?” she asked.
“Thrilling,” I said with heavy sarcasm. She laughed, told me to hold on, and soon Lucy’s voice came through.
“Hi there,” she said softly. My arms shook.
“You made it hard on me,” I said.
“You didn’t leave your number.”
She sighed. “I’m sorry. It’s interesting that you found me.”
“I think it is. Tell me something about you,” she demanded.
“Hmm. Pizza is my favorite food,” I said after a moment. It sounded ridiculous.
The awkward, meaningless conversation we were having would initiate the most amazing period of my life to that point. I would soon care about someone in a way I hadn’t known existed; a way that opens a person to a full breadth of joy, pain, and torment. I was already feeling, well, strange. It was strange, in fact, to be feeling anything at all. The girls I had dated before produced no such feeling. I found them mindless, and completely uninteresting…….
Once I became aware of my indifference to the female population, at least the portion I had encountered, I told myself that the problem lied with me. I vowed to have more patience; to give the next one a chance. The endeavor succeeded only in turning a two day relationship into two months of misery with a wealthy blonde from Galveston. All of this had led me to Lucy.
We made plans for the following day. I would drive down and meet her father-the thought of which unnerved me-then we would see a movie. After hanging up the phone I sat still for several minutes trying to figure out what was happening to me. Was I getting sick? It felt as if the blood flowing through my body had been replaced with some foreign substance. I was edgy, nervous, and unable to think clearly. I glanced at the clock. Nine-thirty. Close enough, I told myself. All I wanted was tomorrow.
The drive down Highway 377 was now slightly familiar. I enjoyed the stretches of fence and pasture, broken intermittently by a small town, reappearing as the road heads south until finally curving into Bluff Dale. I pulled up to an average size frame house with two cars parked out front. The address matched what Lucy had given me, so I turned off the car, checked myself in the rearview, and made my way to the door. I wasn’t sure if I preferred Lucy or her parents to answer. Both thoughts made me nervous. I knocked lightly, and was greeted by her mother.
“Hello again,” she said with a smile. “C’mon in.”
The house was older, well kept, and it had a nice smell. Lucy stood in the kitchen next to a tall, thin man. They were both watching me; Lucy with a grin and he without. She looked much as she had the day before, but with a tight knit sweater and faded jeans. The shape of her body was perfect, as I saw it, and I did my best not to stare. She motioned me in with a slight nod. I felt stiff and uncomfortable in my walk, and shaky as I reached my hand out to her father.
“Gabriel,” he said in a low voice.
My response, “Sir”, sounded like a ten year old in contrast.
“So, where you kids headed this evenin’?” he asked in a slightly louder tone.
“Uh, to the movies, I think. If that’s alright.” Lucy let out a snort of laughter and looked down.
“Alright by me,” he said. Ya’ll be safe.”
We laughed about that moment when we got in the car, and several times after that. We spent the evening together, and I returned her home quicker than I wanted to. We said goodbye, I kissed her on the cheek, and the phone was ringing the second I stepped back into my dorm two hours later.
So began three weeks of complete attachment to another person. We saw each other every day but two, and when we weren’t together we were on the phone. We laughed, and talked, then laughed some more. But mostly we drove. We drove what must have been every back road within one hundred miles of Bluff Dale. Sometimes we would stop, kiss without breathing, then drive some more. I was so completely enamored with Lucy Tanner that I all but forgot about my classes, and I received a rather firm lecture from my mother after not calling home for a week.
I was in love with her. I hadn’t considered the idea until an afternoon in late December. I was getting ready to drive to see her, as usual, when the phone rang. I snatched it up after one ring and said hello. “Gabe, hey,” she said. Her voice was different, low and raspy, and her words came slowly.
“Hi. You ok?”
“Yeah. Listen, just meet me at the diner instead of coming to my house.” Her words melted together like she was talking to me in her sleep.
“Alright. I can do that. You sure you’re ok?”
“Yeah. See in you a bit.”
Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. Was she going to end it? The thought made my stomach turn; I felt the urge to vomit. I got ready in a rush and headed for Bluff Dale as I had done nearly every day of the last three weeks. Only this time I drove faster, and without admiring the countryside. I didn’t notice how tightly I was gripping the wheel until I pulled info the cafe parking lot. My hand ached.
She was sitting with her arms crossed. She looked cold. Her face was different, I thought to myself. Not the face itself, but the person behind it. “Hi,” she said while looking at me with glassy eyes. I felt like I was meeting a stranger.
“Hi,” I responded. I wasn’t sure what was scaring me, yet the fear was more intense that I had ever experienced.
“I’m a drug addict, Gabe,” she said suddenly. “Since I was thirteen. The day you saw me, here, was my second day home from rehab.” Her words, and the way she spoke them, felt like razor blades. I could only look at her. “Not my first try, by the way,” she added with a forced smile.
“What kind?” I asked.
“Pain pills. Sleeping pills. Muscle relaxers.” She was twisting a napkin. I leaned back in my chair.
The cafe was silent except for the faint sound of Merle Haggard coming from a radio in the kitchen. “Can I assume you’ve taken something? You’re not yourself.”
She leaned forward and brought her face to mine. “That’s just it, sweet boy. I am myself. Right now.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head.
“Yes. Yes. This is me. This is me, and I won’t be good for you.”
“Stop talking like that,” I snapped. Anger was pulsing through me.
“I will ruin your life. I swear it. I’ve done it many times. I promise you.”
She quickly rose from her chair, placed both hands on my face, and kissed my forehead. Her lips were so cold. “You made me want to do the right thing so bad,” she said. “You made me not myself. It was so nice. Thank you.” And she was gone.
I’ve thought about that moment nearly every day since. I should have followed her. I should have told her that I loved her. She already knew it, and that knowledge was what made her end it. I believe she loved me too. I called her house several times in the weeks that followed, and she never called me back. I feel, in my heart, that she wouldn’t call because she loved me.
I didn’t hear about her death until after the funeral. A letter arrived in late January with no return address, and when I opened it, I found two small pieces of paper. The first was a newspaper clipping; it was Lucy’s obituary. Her lips were beautiful even in black and white. The second was a note:
Thank you for making her smile again. Her father and I had nearly forgotten how beautiful it was. I hope you do great things.
I never once noticed the cold that December. The sun refused to shine, but it didn’t matter. Everything felt just as it should have been. Sitting here, on a cold metal bench, a shiver runs through me and I bury deeper into my coat. A passing cloud allows a hint of light to touch Lucy’s headstone, and a thought comes to mind: I never got to see her face in the sunshine. It’s a shame. I bet it would have been amazing.