Stephanie Wilson- “Compartments”

Front Desk

Dee was suspicious of the man the moment he walked up to the front desk.  His black hair looked dirty, his skin was gray, and the shadows beneath his eyes inspired both fear and sadness in her at the same time.

—I’d like to get a room? he said, his hesitation transforming the statement into a question.

—Well, you came to the right place, Dee said, the retort escaping before she could check herself.  Yet despite her brusque tone, the young man—she guessed he wasn’t quite thirty—offered up a smile, which seemed to cost him effort.  He said he needed a basic room; it was just him.

Dee extolled the virtues of their standard double—give three amenities before you quote a price—which was $79 a night.

He said again that it was only him; she replied that the double was their basic room—after that you got into the queens and suites, and the price went up from there.  The young man nodded, said he understood.  But as she watched him fumble in his pocket for his wallet, Dee decided to help him.  Perhaps it was his easy acquiescence—or was it resignation?—that made her feel sorry for him.

She lowered her voice and leaned over the counter, letting him in on a secret.  They did have a single, but didn’t like to use it unless the hotel was completely booked.  It was next to the ice maker, and hadn’t been part of the recent remodel—

He cut her off; said he’d take it.  She began entering his information, her fingers only pausing over the keys when he asked her to keep the checkout date “open.”  Dee studied him, instantly suspicious again.  He didn’t know when he wanted to check out?  He shook his head.  She pursed her lips, a disapproving gesture, but assured him that as long as he was putting the room on his credit card, he could stay as long as he liked.  Or as long as your credit doesn’t run out, she thought.  She made his plastic keycard, pointed him in the direction of his room, and wished him a pleasant stay.  He thanked her, and she noticed the way his hand shook as he hefted his suitcase.  Drugs, she decided, watching him walk away.  She glanced at the shiny marble countertop, where the man had left an unintentional souvenir: a set of sweaty fingerprints.  But before she could find a cloth to wipe them away, the marks evaporated into the air.

 

Room 201

After he let himself in, he put out the Do Not Disturb sign and locked the double locks.  Then, he turned the heat on high.  But nothing could warm his thin skin, his grating bones.  He turned the television on and let it bathe the room in blue light and sound.  Whether he used it to keep him awake or lull him to sleep he couldn’t tell; he was forever hanging in a place between rest and wakefulness.

 

Management Office

The daytime manager expressed his displeasure when he found out Dee had rented one of the single rooms.  She apologized, said the man was insistent.  The manager rubbed the stubble on his face and sighed, but chose not to pursue the matter further.  Dee was a good employee, and this was a minor offense.  After she left, he closed the door behind her, popped two mints into his mouth, and surreptitiously sniffed his forearm.  That morning his wife had looked at him with disgust, said the stench of whiskey was beginning to seep out of his pores.

 

Housekeeping

There was something suspicious about 201.

—He never wants his room cleaned, though he been here over a week, said Roz, working a pile of stiff laundry into folded submission.

—That’s his business, said Bev, filling her cart with tiny plastic bottles of shampoo.  Maybe he just doesn’t want to be any trouble.

—Ha! said Roz, punctuating her laugh with the snap of an over-bleached towel.  That would be a first.  These people live to give us trouble.

—And if they didn’t, replied Bev, we’d be out of a job.

Roz gave her an irritated look. Bev never complained about the guests, the management, or even the sharp-tongued, decrepit mother she cared for every moment she wasn’t working.  When things got bad at the hotel—when the child of a guest smashed chocolate into the bedspread and the carpet, for instance, or their department was grilled about alleged thefts by the watery-eyed manager—Bev would only look up and say, Oh Lord, give me strength, and continue on—never stopping to lament the injustice of it all.

The house phone rang and Roz went to answer it, muttering a curse at the stiffness that had gathered in her knees from standing so long.

—I tell you, she said, pausing before lifting the receiver, 201 is trouble.  I know it.

 

Front Desk

Dee received the call from 204: a complaint about a smell in the hallway.  She sighed as she hung up—the guest had not bothered to say please, or even hello.  Had people always been this rude?  She couldn’t recall.  Her fourteen years at the hotel had blurred into one long shift.

She dialed Roz; asked her to make a pass at the second floor with some air freshener.  And maybe use the powder stuff too, the kind that you vacuumed up.

On her own hands, Dee was conscious of the smell of garlic.  No matter how much she scrubbed at them with soap and hot water, the scent remained, reminding her of the night before.  She’d been making dinner for her and Clay—a kind gesture, as he cooked all day at the restaurant where he worked, and she was sure he would appreciate a break.  But when he entered her kitchen, still wearing his checked chef’s pants, he took one look at her chopping the garlic and adding it to the still cold pan and sneered: You fucking moron.  You’re supposed to heat the oil first.  He took up the pan and all its contents and dumped them down the sink, shouldered her out of the way of the stove, and began preparing the meal himself.  It wasn’t such a big deal, not really—people lost their tempers all the time over smaller things.  But.  Dee’s son had heard the whole thing, and it was his wide-eyed expression that she couldn’t scrub from her mind, no easier than she could wash away the stench of garlic.

The phone rang, and Dee took the call from 207, who wanted to voice her complaint about the noise of the vacuum in the hall.

 

Housekeeping

Kelvin the porter was there when Roz came to return the vacuum.  She could tell he wanted to talk—or rather, wanted an audience—or else he’d be in one of the vacant guest rooms, watching TV.

—I heard you talking about 201, he said with a smirk.  I’ll tell you what I think.  I bet you anything there’s was a woman in there with him—you know, the kind who charges by the hour.

He crossed his arms behind his head and awaited her reaction.

Roz gave him a withering look.  Kel delighted in inventing these stories.  He would chortle with laughter any time they found used condoms in dresser drawers, in bathtub drains, and other odd places; it just provided him with more material.  Kel was convinced that all of the guests engaged in various perversions all of the time.  In the anonymity of their private compartments, they could indulge in acts they never would think of practicing at home.  This was his grand theory.

Roz just shook her head and grabbed her cart; she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of her attention.  But she couldn’t resist ribbing him, just a little bit.

—You a bigger gossip than all us ladies put together.

 

Room 203

The sales representative paced the room, rehearsing his speech.

—These adhesives last—he paused, consulted his notes—five times longer than the average—

He stopped again.  The sound flooded in from the adjoining room; he could make out nearly every word being spoken on the television.

Tonight!  On Action News at Seven…

The salesman set down his notes, scooped up his keycard, and headed out to the hotel bar.

 

Room 303

The engineer couldn’t sleep.  The strange room felt too empty, too quiet.  If he were at home, he’d hear the rumble of the icemaker, making cubes; the whir of the computer, which he rarely turned off; the creaks that were the sounds of the boards contracting, as the house cooled down for the night.  And, of course, the steady breaths and occasional whimpers of Rusty, who always occupied the foot of the bed.

 

Room 110

When they entered the room, the husband felt a twinge of excitement.  The strangeness of it all, the room’s slight shabbiness, felt erotic.  In the unfamiliar light, even his wife looked different.  Until she began to scowl.

Was that a smear on the headboard?  The remnants of someone’s unwashed head?  She immediately stripped off the bedspread.  These things never get cleaned.  The wife pulled back the remaining sheets, examining them for hairs.

Once in bed, she recoiled at her husband’s touch.  It was just so gross; she was just too uncomfortable—as she attempted to arrange her body so that as little of it touched the sheets as possible.

 

Room 203

The gin had put the salesman’s head into a fog; it should have been easy to sleep.  But the noise was intolerable.  No one should have a television on that loud, that late at night.  He was a paying guest; he had a right to complain.  He picked up the receiver and dialed “0”; the night manager picked up.

 

Room 305

To keep himself awake, Kel put on the television, and changed channels until he came to a cooking competition.  He thought perhaps his girlfriend was doing the same back home—the show was one of her favorites.  Maybe the baby was sitting on her lap, watching too.  No, it was past his bedtime.  Kel didn’t like missing putting his son to bed, but he needed the overtime.  It was criminal, charging as much for diapers as they did.

The air crackled as a call came through on his radio: Security to 201.  Not for him.  But he sat up anyway, and turned off the TV.

 

Security Office

Bill received a call at 1:03 AM.  Permission to enter.  He rarely received instructions like these—once in a while, he’d have to break up a party, or help a hysterical mother who’d accidentally locked her keys—and her toddler—in a room.  The rest of the job was checking license plates in the parking lot, making sure they belonged to guests, calling the towing company if not.

Bill stood, surveying the security monitors before attending to the call.  The only sign of life was the night manager, standing behind the desk, tapping at the keyboard.  No one stirred in the halls, or the lot, or the laundry room.  The porter was nowhere to be seen, probably holed up in an empty guest room, Bill thought disapprovingly, as he turned to leave.  He valued hard work, always had, though all it had earned him was wearing a polyester uniform at a time when he should have been retired.  But no, he shouldn’t think that way.  The fault lay with the people around him, who didn’t abide by such principles: his wife—rather, ex-wife and her lawyer—who demanded alimony, though she had been the one that wanted to move on.  And his son, who could never hold a job.  No, Bill’s problem wasn’t that he worked too hard or too much.  It was that he was too readily gave the fruits of his labors away.

He stood in front of 201, rapped his knuckles against the frame.  Nothing.  After about a minute of knocking and calling out, he reached for his master key.

 

Room 110

The wife woke to the sound of an object tracing a path across the ceiling.

—What’s that? she whispered to her husband, sitting upright.  He cursed, his frustrations still fresh.  He knew they should have asked for a room away from the elevator.

 

Second-Floor Hallway

After he called 911, Bill felt it was his responsibility to see the job through, no matter how much he wanted to turn and leave.  But he stood outside the door to maintain some distance from the man inside.  Also, it was hot in there; the man had turned the thermostat up as high as it would go.  Bottles of pills lined the dresser and the air felt stale and unhealthy, as if his illness had somehow permeated the atmosphere.

Bill continued to keep watch when the paramedics arrived.  He saw them peel the damp sheets off the man, off the body.  His sharp limbs formed triangles as they lifted him onto the gurney.

Bill began to think—If that young man had a father—then turned from the scene, finding himself face-to-face with the porter, who had been standing behind him since the medics arrived, uncharacteristically silent.

 

Room 303

The engineer rolled over and sighed, worrying.  He didn’t trust his sister to mix up the food the way Rusty liked, though he’d shown her how, twice.  Nor could he count on her to take the appropriate time with the morning and afternoon walks; she never went in much for exercise.

He strained to hear once more in the darkness, and discerned a slight rumble.  Was that the housekeeper’s cart, making its way across the pavement—in the middle of the night?

The engineer looked out the window to see a stretcher rattling through the parking lot, casting its flat shadow on window, then wall, window, then wall.  He watched the men in blue, their arms encircling the stretcher, lifting it up into the waiting ambulance.

 

Room 201

It was inevitable.  Once he finally got warm, the arms came, lifting him up, up.  Then he was rolling, as if over water.  He occasionally felt the surface hiccup beneath him, like catching wake from a passing boat.

 

Room 110

The shadows at that time of the morning, the glow from the lamps in the parking lot, stretched everything into the grotesque.  Though that was not exactly how the woman described it to her husband.

—It was creepy, the way—

—Shh, said her husband.  He placed his arm around her shoulders; she let it rest there.

—It was hard to tell—she continued—if the man was really that thin, his face that pale.  He looked drained of blood.  And in the hushed, cottony atmosphere of early morning, she heard the man moan, a horrible sound.  Or was it, perhaps, the groan of metal on metal, of the doors shutting him into the ambulance?

 

Room 303

The engineer called his sister hours later, at a more appropriate time of morning.  He described the man, a ghost, not appearing to register the sensation of the gurney bumping over the uneven pavement.  His sister murmured, how terrible.  As he hung up, the engineer realized he forgot to ask about Rusty.

 

Room 203

The salesman looked at his bloodshot eyes in the mirror, rubbed them with his fists.  His meeting was in an hour.  The person next door had turned off the television eventually—but too late for him to get a decent night’s sleep.

 

Front Desk

The story reached Dee in fragments and whispers.  Though the medics tried to be quiet—the night manager implored them not to disturb the other guests—people heard anyway, the bumps and voices coming through the thin walls, the muffled signals of distress.

Dee put off counting her drawer until the night manager arrived.  What else could he tell her, she asked, about the man from 201?

—The paramedics couldn’t say for sure, but it seemed—

He stopped as guests entered the lobby.

From then on, the manager spoke in clipped sentences out of the corners of his mouth.

—The man knew he was dying.  Obviously he planned to do it there.  Not a suicide, no.  A surrender to the inevitable.  He didn’t know if the man had family, but one would assume—

The more Dee pressed, the more resistant he grew.

Look, he only had knowledge of these facts: the man was dying, and he had been taken away.  Yes, he agreed with Dee, it was terrible.  But they operated in a world of strangers; it was not his business, nor hers.  What could they have done?

Dee wanted to protest, to argue, but instead she took her drawer to the office to record its contents.  She counted and stacked the bills and dropped the coins into their appropriate compartments—each penny, nickel, and quarter landing with a satisfying sound.  As she worked, she tried to recall the man’s face, but found his image had already begun to fade away.