|Leaving Small’s Hotel|
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The Rock at the Mouth of the Cave
WAS UP EARLY the next morning, as always, but when I entered the kitchen
I found Cedric “Call Me Lou” Abbott already there, chatting with Suki,
the cook, and making himself a breakfast sandwich from the meat loaf in
the “leftovers” refrigerator.
SPRING NIGHT, thirty-eight years ago, I was camping in my back yard with
my four friends Rodney “Raskol” Lodkochnikov, Marvin Jones, Rose “Spike”
O’Grady, and Matthew Barber. Spike had brought our meandering conversation
to a sudden end when she suggested that she might not be the daughter of
Mr. O’Grady, her apparent father, but of the man who delivered the Yummy
Good brand of baked goods door to door in Babbington, the man we called
In the embarrassed silence that followed, Spike stirred the fire while the rest of us tried to think of a way to change the subject. This wasn’t easy. The thought that Spike might be the daughter of Mr. Yummy stood in the way like a fat man in a narrow tunnel, as plump and sticky as “Little Yummy,” the cartoon fatty who promoted Yummy Good’s products on television. We sat there, working hard to squeeze past the thought and on to something else, working our jaws over our gum, ruminating vigorously.
When the ideas came, they seemed to come all at once, as if we had squeezed past Mr. Yummy and tumbled into a vestibule from which many passageways radiated. Each of us scrambled into one and asked whatever question he found there.
“Any more potato chips?” asked Raskol.
“Will good eventually triumph over evil?” asked Matthew.
“Are flying saucers real?” I asked.
“Do all hermits live in caves?” asked Marvin.
“Do they fake those nudist-camp pictures?” asked Spike.
Another silence fell. I spent some time wondering about whether the potato chips were all gone, about the likelihood that sweetness and light might eventually prevail over the forces of darkness, whether life was present elsewhere in the universe, and whether all hermits were troglodytes, and I suppose that the others thought about those things, too, but when we finally spoke, we all asked the same question: “What pictures?”
Grinning, Spike produced a folded magazine from her back pocket.
After we had looked at the pictures very thoroughly and tried to explain how the photographer had made the black rectangles stay in place on the people’s faces, fatigue settled over us, and we ran out of conversation.
“We can still catch a little of Baldy,” I said to Marvin. His question about hermits living in caves had been inspired, I knew, by listening to “Baldy’s Nightcap.” This was a radio program hosted by a dummy, Baldy. His ventriloquist, Bob Balducci, was relegated to the background as file clerk, gofer, and yes-man—or in Bob’s case, yeah-man. Part of Baldy’s routine was the pretense that he lived in a cave.
“Okay,” said Marvin. He turned his radio on.
I coveted Marvin’s radio. It resembled a small piece of luggage, with a real leather case. The radio took a while to warm up, as radios did in those days, so the sound of Baldy’s voice came upon us gradually, as if he had been waiting outside the bubble of firelight and now, when we summoned him, joined us there, within the shrinking sphere. Baldy was bringing his show to a close, ending, as he always did, with the news:
“The hour is growing late,” he said, “It’s time to see what’s going on in the hideous world outside the cave. Bob?”
“Did you roll the rock in front of the cave?”
“Good boy, Bob. Let’s see . . .” There was the sound of rustling newspaper. “We’ve got the war in Korea . . . some bombings . . . refugees . . . a little corruption here and there . . . Here’s something: ëFerry Sinks, Ninety Dead.’ What is it with these ferries? They go down like rocks! Bob?”
“Bring that ferry file to me, will you?” A pause. “Thanks. Nice work, Bob. What have we got here? A hundred orphans on their way to a free lunch . . . ninety lepers going to a clinic . . . two hundred virgins off to dance around a maypole. They always take the ferry! And down they go! Let me tell you something, boys and girls: if you see a ferry pulling away from the dock with a hundred nuns on a pilgrimage, stay off it! That boat is headed for the bottom! Bob?”
“Make sure that rock is in front of the cave.”
“Well, it’s time to say good night, boys and girls. Remember what Baldy says: stay in the cave. It’s a nasty world out there.”
Baldy’s closing theme came on, and Marvin clicked the radio off. Silence fell into the dying light. I squirmed lower in my bed roll and pulled the blanket over my head — to make a little cave.
Albertine and I started up the stairs to bed, the phone rang. At
late hours, Al generally preferred to let the machine take all calls, but
I still had hopes that I would find on the other end of the line a representative
of a vast extended family calling to inquire about taking the entire hotel
for a reunion, desperate to find a place that suited their needs, willing
to pay whatever I wanted to ask.
“I’ll get it,” I said.
“Oh, please don’t,” said Albertine.
I did. It was a woman who identified herself as a Satisfaction Specialist from the Babbington Reporter calling to see whether Mr. Leroy had received the paper.
“Yes,” I said. “We received it, but—”
“Was it on time?” she asked.
“Yes, it was on time, but—”
“What’s this?” asked Al.
“The Reporter,” I said.
The Satisfaction Specialist asked, “Would you say that the credibility of our journalism was equal to your expectations, lower than your expectations, or in excess of your expectations?”
“Equal to your expectations, lower than your expectations, or in excess of your expectations?”
“Well, to be honest with you, my expectations are not very high. You see, I’ve been reading the Reporter for quite a few years, so I’ve come to expect —”
“Give me that,” said Albertine, and she took — it would not be unfair to say snatched — the phone from me. “Listen,” she said into the mouthpiece, “I am probably your biggest single subscriber — sixteen copies — no, seventeen — every day — and I want to tell you that the imbecile you employ to deliver that rag — Dexter Burke — right — well — oh — really? — then you have my sympathies, Mrs. Burke, believe me. The man is an idiot — and my aged mother has got a stronger throwing arm than —. Oh, yeah? Well, the same to you, sweetheart!”
She handed the phone back to me and said, shaking her head, “I’ve got to get out of this town.”
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Leaving Small’s Hotel is published in paperback by Picador, a division of St. Martin's Press, at $14.00.
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Copyright © 1998 by Eric Kraft
Leaving Small’s Hotel is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author's imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
Leaving Small’s Hotel was first published on May 11, 1998, by Picador USA, a division of St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10010.
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