|Leaving Small’s Hotel|
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AWOKE before the alarm went off, got up immediately, pulled some sweat togs on, and went directly to my workroom without any coffee, drawn by the guilty pleasure of working on Murder While You Wait. This was a real escape from my life, more effective as an escape than my past had ever been. Rockwell Kingman was nothing like me. I was beginning to spend more and more of my mental time with him, and I was beginning to like him. Already, I felt as if I had known him for years, and of course I must have. Consider this: I had understood his style from the moment when I first saw him standing at the window of that lousy hotel, waiting for the right set of circumstances to detonate his charge. His signature technique was misdirection: he made the target look like one of the innocent bystanders. If he executed a job perfectly, it looked sloppy. The intended death looked accidental, part of the mess left by a guy who couldn’t shoot straight, who couldn’t kill without overkill. I admired this deviousness. It seemed clever to me. The astonishing fact of his suddenly appearing at that hotel window — full-grown, tough, competent, cynical, bitter, brutal — no longer astonished me at all, because I knew exactly where he had come from, from some dark corner of myself, where he had been waiting for years, confident that the day would come when I would let him out.
“I CALLED LIZA,” Albertine said from her spot behind the desk, without
looking up from the papers she was working on. When I didn’t say
anything, she looked up and said, “The realtor who brought Mr. Fillmore
WE HAD a fine crowd that night. The day was bright; the sunset was rosy; the night was mild. On days like that, people get the urge to wander, and Small’s beckons as an easy getaway. At dinner, the dining room was nearly full. Elaine returned, and for a while Lou was so busy behind the bar that she had to play cocktail waitress. Albertine had to shout over the buzz of voices to introduce my reading of episode twelve of Dead Air, “Rush Service.”
YOU TOOK YOUR PICTURES to be developed and printed at Himmelfarb’s Photography
Shop on Upper Bolotomy Road, just north of Main Street, in Babbington when
I was a boy, you could get regular service or rush service.
Regular service was exactly the same as the service you could get at the drugstore across the street: a man in an unmarked truck came around once a week and picked the film up, and a week later the same man in the same truck brought your pictures back. Ordinarily, regular service was fine. One of its features was the sweet pain of waiting, one of the paradoxes of our emotional life, an ache that is complicated and compounded by its constant companion, anticipation. I would drop my film off at Himmelfarb’s and then for an entire day I would feel light, relieved that the film was out of my hands, the responsibility for it off my shoulders. A couple of emotionally neutral days would pass, and then, on or about the fourth day, a tightness would begin to ripple across my back, and by the sixth day, this expectant tension would have me twitching and itching. Sometimes I tried dropping in at Himmelfarb’s on the sixth day to see if the pictures had come in early. They never were early; regular service always took a full week.
Not everyone was willing to wait a week. If you were in a hurry, you could pay the “rush” price, a dollar extra, and Mr. Himmelfarb would develop and print your pictures himself, in his darkroom in the back of the shop. You could have them the next day. I had never used the rush service, though I’d spent a considerable amount of my allowance and earnings at Himmelfarb’s. For a while I had even been his competitor in the photographic-services business. I had ordered a developing and printing outfit by mail and advertised myself throughout my neighborhood as an adept in the mysteries of the craft. I got one customer, Mrs. Jerrold, an attractive housewife who lived in my neighborhood, but when I tried to develop and print her pictures I discovered that I didn’t know what I was doing. After that experiment, I returned to Mr. Himmelfarb for my developing and printing needs. I kept Mrs. Jerrold as a customer because I was attracted to her and eager for any excuse to visit her, and because I was too embarrassed to tell her that I had given up the photographic-services business after a single setback. I picked up her film whenever she called and then took it to Mr. Himmelfarb. When the pictures came back, I took them and their negatives out of their yellow envelope and repackaged them in a small brown paper bag, the sort of thing a kid would use if he were a supplier of photographic services on the neighborhood level. An important reason for my perpetrating this deception was the fact that I got to see all of Mrs. Jerrold’s pictures, and her husband took some that could have been called cheesecake. I spent a while looking at those through a magnifying glass; I always suspected that Mr. Himmelfarb did, too.
With an air of self-importance, I tossed my film onto the counter and said, “Rush, please, Mr. Himmelfarb.”
“Rush!” said Mr. Himmelfarb. “Must be something important.”
I tried to be nonchalant, so that Mr. Himmelfarb would see that I was growing up and beginning to take my place in the world as a young fellow who used rush service whenever it suited him.
“Oh, nothing special.”
“A new baby in the family?”
He leaned across the counter, looked me in the eye, and winked. Drawing the words out, he asked, “A girlfriend?”
“No,” I said. “They’re just experiments. I was trying to get some action shots — you know, following the action with the camera, the way the book says.” (I wasn’t about to tell him that I had taken a picture of a handful of clams that Porky White tossed into the air to settle a dispute about whether airborne objects — saucers, pie plates, clams — would look like flying saucers to the untrained eye. It sounded like a ridiculous experiment even to me.)
“And,” I said, under the influence of another wave of self-importance, “There are some more pictures I took at Kap’n Klam.”
“For the Wall of Happy Diners,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, and, still surfing on self-importance, I added, “and for their advertising, too. I’m doing their advertising.”
“Oh, sure. I’m an investor, you know.”
“An investor! In what?”
“In Kap’n Klam.”
“Oh, I see,” he said. Then, with the clear implication that he understood, now, that I was running an errand for Porky, he said, “So this is a rush order for Mr. White.”
“Yeah,” I said, and I wondered at what point, exactly, I had gone too far, when, exactly, he had stopped believing me.
I FINISHED, I held my hands up to silence the thundering ovation that was
probably impending and said, “I have to ask you to forgive me for two mistakes
in there, in that reading. I had intended to make each of these episodes
self-contained, and Albertine advertised that they would be, but I realize
that a couple of things in this one were not explained; they were just
hanging there, and they must have seemed puzzling.”
“The Wall of Happy Diners,” said a woman at the bar who was holding a drink garnished with a pink paper umbrella.
“Yes,” I said, smiling at her. “You’ve been listening.”
She smiled back. Writing has its rewards.
To the room I said, “The Wall of Happy Diners was a wall in Kap’n Klam where Porky posted pictures of people who seemed to be enjoying themselves. I took the pictures, most of them.”
“And Kap’n Klam?” asked a beefy fellow with a full beard, black, flecked with gray.
“That was the name of Porky’s restaurant,” I said, “and that’s a long story.”
“Porky ran a clam bar near the town dock in Babbington,” said Lou. “He was tireless in his efforts to fill the place with happy diners,” and he went on to tell the story of the naming of the restaurant. He told it completely, and he told it well.
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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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