|Leaving Small’s Hotel|
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Local Boy Snaps Shots
IS ALWAYS DIFFICULT to pin down the onset of an idea, but I think that
it was this morning, when I surprised Albertine in the kitchen, on her
hands and knees, scrubbing the floor, doing a job that we have always paid
someone else to do, even in the hotel’s leanest early days, and she looked
at me and I saw that she was embarrassed to have been caught saving money
this way, embarrassed for me, because she hadn’t wanted me to see that
she thought it necessary, or at least prudent, to save money this way,
that I really understood how sad she was, how heavily the weight of everything
that was a care to her fell on her, and I think that it was at that moment
that inspiration struck. I knew that the ultimate target I wanted
Rockwell Kingman to pursue was me.
As I saw it, Kingman would not be interested. He would find the idea bizarre, even perverted. As a killer, he would find the desire for death impossible to understand. It would take Peter weeks to persuade Kingman to accept him as a client. It would involve riveting discussions of the meaning of life and the meaning of death. I anticipated the writing of those scenes with relish.
I SPENT the rest of the morning trapping cats. Lou and Grumpy Cluck helped me. We brought the launch and the rowboat around to the wildlife area, pulled the rowboat up on shore, and laid a catwalk from the bow to the sand. We dotted the walk with food—cat food that Suki had concocted—and set little bowls of it along the shore. We put several large bowls in the rowboat, a movable feast, and then the three of us sat in the launch, drinking coffee—Irish coffee that Lou had concocted—and watched the rowboat fill with cats. When it seemed to be as full as it was likely to get, we began paddling the launch, slowly, gently, quietly. The line on the rowboat tightened, and we drew the boat out behind us toward the open bay. There had been some talk, earlier, about scuttling the rowboat and drowning the cats, but Irish coffee makes a guy verbose and sentimental, and the three of us were soon running on at length about the miracle of life and the joy of living, and scolding what Lou liked to call “the culture of shit” for putting so low a price on life, living, joy, and everything else worthwhile. We towed the rowboat to the largest of the uninhabited islands near us, and we set the cats free there. (In other words, I said to myself without looking back, we marooned the cats there.)
JEFFREY HIMSELF brought the boatload of prospects to the island in the
afternoon. They were crisp and efficient. There were a dozen
of them, nine men and three women. All of them wore scent of one
kind or another, and each one had a notebook with a checklist. From
what I could see, no two checklists were identical. It was easy to
decide which one would have been upset about the cats—a round pink man
with a few strands of white hair combed over his round pink pate, the one
wearing the red necktie on which kittens cavorted.
THAT NIGHT’S READING was “Local Boy Snaps Shots,” the thirteenth episode of Dead Air.
HEADLINE in the Babbington Reporter read, “Saucers Swarm over Babbington,
Local Boy Snaps Shots of Mysterious Craft.” Below the headline was
the picture that I had snapped. Apparently, Porky White’s attempt
to demonstrate that common objects thrown into the air would not resemble
flying saucers had been a failure. Judging from the headline, a viewer
who was not aware of the circumstances under which the photograph was taken—and
that would be every viewer but Porky and me—might assume that the objects
in the sky were much larger than clams and, therefore, higher in the sky
and farther away than the clams had actually been. Such a viewer
might even mistake the clams for flying saucers.
When I first saw the picture, I felt the thrill you would expect a boy to feel if the local newspaper published a picture he had taken, but very quickly I began to feel cheated. I hadn’t intended to have this picture published in the Reporter; I hadn’t given permission for it to be published; no one had even asked my permission; my name was misspelled; and no one had paid me.
I called Porky.
“Did you see the paper today?” I asked.
“I sure did!” said Porky. “Hold on a minute.” Away from the mouthpiece he called out, “Pour some coffee for those guys and apologize for the delay. Make ’em feel good.” Into the mouthpiece he said, “Great picture, wasn’t it?”
“Do you think I should have him arrested?” I asked.
“Who? What for?”
“Mr. Himmelfarb, for sending the picture to the paper.”
“Are you nuts? Himmelfarb did us a favor.”
“Sure. Listen to this.” He stopped talking, and from the background I heard the sound of animated conversation, clinking china, glasses, laughter, and, some voices raised in dispute. Porky came back on the line. “Amazing, isn’t it? The place is packed!”
“Curiosity seekers,” I said, the way my father did whenever we were stuck in a traffic jam caused by the rubbernecking curious slowing down to get a good look at an accident.
“Yeah!” said Porky with enthusiasm.
“What a pain.”
“Are you kidding?” asked Porky. “I’m not screening people at the door here, you know. All are welcome at Kap’n Klam, including curiosity seekers. You understand?”
“Oh, sure,” I said, speaking as an investor in the enterprise, “but,” I added, quoting my father, “what is it about these people that makes them think nothing has really happened until they’ve witnessed it?”
“Just a damn minute there,” said Porky. “We are all curiosity seekers, Peter. It’s one of the things that make us human. Don’t ever disparage curiosity. I think it’s the noblest of human traits, if you ask me, and it’s honest, not like generosity, for example. You scratch generosity, and very often you’ll find self-interest lying underneath it, but curiosity, scratch that, and you’re going to find nothing but one-hundred-per-cent curiosity through and through. It’s a genuine human trait, unadulterated by other motives. We may be generous to salve a guilty conscience or curry favor, but we want to know because we want to know, and we have a right to know, because we are the only creatures capable of knowing. We are life’s witnesses. If we don’t witness a thing, if we don’t know about a thing, it is, in a way that I don’t have time to explain right now, not real.”
“Porky!” called a voice from the background. “I need three clam salad sandwiches!”
“Coming right up!” he shouted, and then asked, “Can you give me a hand?”
“I’ll be right there,” I said, and a moment later I was on my way, and I was pedaling hard, because I wanted to get down there and see for myself, with my own eyes, what was going on.
||ALDY closed his show that night with this: “Is this you, boys and girls? You are a refugee, an orphan, somewhere, anywhere, who knows where. You have been orphaned by tribal warfare, because the people of the other tribe hate your tribe because your tribe is not their tribe. Do you understand that? Everyone who used to sit with you at the family hearth is dead. They were killed by the people of another tribe because the people of the other tribe need to eliminate the people of your tribe so that they can be certain that they are superior to the people of your tribe. Do you understand that? You watched some of the people die. Some died at your home. Some died on the road. Some died in a camp where you learned to understand the limits of international patience with the refugees of tribal warfare. You are alone. Everything you have you can hold in your hands, everything except your memories. Is that you, boys and girls? No? Lucky for you, kids. But be careful, because there is someone out there somewhere, who knows where, who hates you because you belong to the wrong tribe and because we have not grown up enough as a species to stop living in tribes. Do you understand that? Neither do I. Roll the rock in front of the door, my little ones, stay in the cave, and sleep tight.”|
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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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