|Leaving Small’s Hotel|
YOU CAN READ
Masters of the Arts
crept in like a guilty drunk. I resisted dragging myself out of bed,
though I am ordinarily an early riser. I lay under the covers longer
than I have in years, brooding. In the numb moments after waking,
I felt, for the first time, the burden of our indebtedness as fully as
Albertine must have felt it, without the hope that I usually managed to
summon to counter the facts. I felt all the weight of it, as I knew
she did, and it seemed that if I did drag myself out of bed I would have
to spend the day trudging under a double burden: pulling the weight of
all the years the hotel had been operating at a loss and pushing the weight
of the likelihood that we would never manage to turn it around. Might
as well stay in bed. If it hadn’t been for Albertine, I would have.
I DIDN’T GO down to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee, as I usually
do before beginning my day’s work on my personal history, because I didn’t
want to run into Lou. Instead, I went directly to my workroom, turned
the computer on, and sat at the keyboard. I didn’t slip into the
past, as I usually do. Instead, I wrote this:
That didn’t feel right, didn’t sound right, so I went back to the beginning
and tried again:
That was as far as I could take it, or as far as I cared
to take it. Writing it, even that little bit of it, left me feeling
guilty, because I felt that it was probably very close to the truth.
I put it away and began making some revisions on the episode of Dead
Air that I would read in the evening, and in the space of a sigh I
was away from all the cares that had made me lie late in bed, brooding.
I was no longer the assistant innkeeper at a failing hotel; I wasn’t even
there, in my workroom, sitting at my computer; I was in the past, my favorite
place. Even though the piece of the past that I was exploring was
pocked with treachery, shame, and danger, being there, following my former
self around, invisible to him and everyone else, I was, if not happy, exactly,
at least amused, particularly by the difference between what I saw and
understood and what my younger self saw and understood, and by the thought
that he would grow up to be me, and would at my age be sitting where I
was sitting, amused by his earlier self. After a while, I leaned
back and read from the screen, trying the sound of what I had written.
I was pleased by it, and I was reminded why I prefer to write about the
past. It is a place to go, another place, not this place. It
is another life, not this life.
THAT NIGHT, however, I had my biggest audience so far. It was a Friday night, so we had a few extra people for dinner, beyond the hotel guests, and there were even a few people who in response to Albertine’s advertising had come out in their own boats just to hear my reading. I was cheered by this show of support, and I think I did a good job with episode four of Dead Air, “Masters of the Arts.”
MY TUTORS when I was a boy were three who almost certainly never thought
of me as their pupil. They were a nondescript man who lived around
the corner (or, perhaps, across the street, or on the next block), his
wife, and a ventriloquist’s dummy.
The dummy was Baldy, the host of “Baldy’s Nightcap,” a late-night show that was nonstop talk, a monologue, a seamless stream of Baldy’s reminiscences, thoughts, and feelings. He was a master of the art of frankness, of revelation, and I wanted to learn the trick of it. The man who lived around the corner, Roger Jerrold, was, I believed, a spy, but he kept it hidden behind a seamless front of conventional behavior. He was a master of the art of concealment, and I wanted to learn the trick of it. Because the spy business required a lot of travel, Mr. Jerrold was rarely around. His wife was left alone for days and even weeks at a time. She was a pretty brunette with a trim figure, and I thought about her quite a lot, especially on rainy days.
On rainy days when Mr. Jerrold’s car was not in the driveway, I would visit the Jerrolds’house, using the excuse that I wanted to play with the Jerrolds’ son, Roger junior, who was younger than I. Often I would play marbles with him indoors, within a ring of string that we laid out on the living room rug. If Mrs. Jerrold was passing when I bent over to take a shot, I could see some distance up her skirt, but the effort required to obtain this view affected my shooting, giving me a handicap that made my games with Junior closer than they would otherwise have been.
When I was in shooting position, I could also see under the living room sofa, and one rainy day I discovered a tape recorder under there. This was a surprise, because almost no one had a tape recorder in those days. They were specialized gear, little used by the general public but widely used, of course, by spies.
Mrs. Jerrold paused as she was passing and said, “That’s quite a position you’ve twisted yourself into.”
“I was — ah — looking under the sofa,” I said.
“Oh, really? See anything interesting?”
“A tape recorder.”
“A tape recorder?” She dropped to the floor and looked under the sofa. “What is that doing there?” she wondered aloud.
“Do you think I could try using it?” I asked.
“You can have it, for all I care,” she said.
“Well, no, I guess not. It’s Roger’s. But I never see him using it, and it can’t be getting much use under there, so I don’t see why you shouldn’t use it. Be my guest.”
I slid it out from under the sofa. I opened one of the boxes that were stacked beside it and found a reel of brown recording tape. On a metal plate riveted to the lid of the recorder’s case was a diagram showing how to fit the reel of tape onto a hub on the top of the recorder and thread the tape along a pathway from the full reel to an empty one on the other hub. I tried to duplicate what was shown on the plate, and eventually I got the tape threaded in a way that seemed almost right. I found a pair of earphones clipped into the top of the case, put them on, and plugged them in. I shifted the machine to “play,” the reels turned, the tape began running, and somewhere along the tape’s path the recorder worked the magic of playing sound, but that aspect of the machine — its essence, after all — was to me what technologists call a “black box,” a device that we can appreciate for its product without understanding its process, its mystery. Ask a black box, “How do you do that?” and it answers with a silence that seems to say, “I do what I do, and you do not need to know the trick of it.”
Through the earphones, as if inside my head, I heard Mrs. Jerrold’s voice.
“Oh, yes,” she said, huskily. “Again. Again.”
I listened to enough of the tape to conclude that Mrs. Jerrold had mastered the art of frankness to a degree that even Baldy the Dummy would have envied. More remarkable still was the fact that she had kept this talent of hers so completely hidden from me. She must have learned the art of concealment from her husband.
I wanted that tape. I had no qualms at all about taking it, and in an instant, as if no thought were required at all, I hatched a plan for getting out of the house with it. I said, suddenly, “Hey — I’ve got to go. I didn’t realize how late it was.”
I put my jacket on and zipped it up, as if I were in an awful hurry, as if there would be hell to pay if I didn’t get home right away, and then, as if I had forgotten my responsibility to pack the tape recorder up and put it away but wouldn’t shirk it, since I wasn’t that kind of guy, I rewound the tape. When it was fully rewound, I put the empty reel into the box that the recorded reel had been in, closed the tape recorder and pushed it under the sofa, twisted myself into shooting position, and — half hidden under the sofa — shoved the reel of tape inside my jacket. I took it home with me, even though I didn’t have a machine to play it on, because I knew that it was chock full of fascinating information, loaded with things that I wanted to learn.
WAS APPLAUSE. It was Friday night, and the crowd — oh, let’s call
it a crowd even if it was a very small crowd — was in a Friday-night mood.
Lou was kept busy behind the bar. He didn’t know how to make very
many drinks, but he was eager to learn, and he was happy to pay for any
drink that his customers weren’t satisfied with.
“You know,” he said to one of those customers, a short brunette perched on a bar stool, “for me, a cocktail shaker is a kind of black box.”
“A black box?” she said, knitting her brows and poking her lower lip out fetchingly.
“Yeah,” said Lou. “Like a tape recorder. Like the tape recorder in the story Peter read?”
She looked at him and shrugged. “I guess I missed that part,” she said.
“Yeah, I guess so,” said Lou. “The point is that I don’t really know how the thing works.” He held the cocktail shaker up and looked at it as if it were a technologically sophisticated device. “I put in what I think is supposed to go in, shake it up, cross my fingers, and hope that what comes out is what you wanted.” He shook the shaker, uncapped it, filled a cocktail glass, and set it in front of the dark-haired woman. “There you go,” he said. “Maybe.”
She took a taste of the drink and winced. “This was supposed to be a mai-tai,” she said.
“Isn’t it?” asked Lou.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “It tastes funny.”
“I guess my mai-tai isn’t your cup of tea, hey? That one’s on me. The next one, too, if you’ll give me another shot at it. You’re not driving, are you?”
“We came by boat.”
“Uh-huh. You know, I’m sorry that we don’t have any of those little umbrellas. I think a mai-tai is supposed to have a little umbrella in it. I’ll get some in for tomorrow night. You come by tomorrow, and I’ll give you two umbrellas with every drink.”
“I just might take you up on that.”
“You know, if you don’t have to go home with the guy what brung you — ”
“My sister and her husband brought me.”
“Then why not stay for the weekend? This is a great place for a weekend getaway, and we’ve got special rates during the readings.”
She looked around, apparently appraising Small’s as a place for a weekend getaway, then turned to Lou again and said, “There are going to be more readings?”
I decided to call it a night.
IN BED, after we had turned the lights out, found our comfortable positions,
and had awaited sleep in silence for a while, Albertine asked me something
that I didn’t quite catch.
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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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