A Small Hotel
By ROBERT OLEN BUTLER
Copyright © 2011 Robert Olen Butler
All right reserved.
On the afternoon of the day when she fails to show up in a judge's chambers in Pensacola to finalize her divorce, Kelly Hays swerves her basic-black Mercedes into the valet spot and thumps hard into the curb and pops the gearshift into park, and then she feels a silence rush through her chest and limbs and mind that should terrify her. But she yields herself to it. She brings her face forward and lays her forehead gently against the steering wheel. She sits in front of the Olivier House on Toulouse Street in the New Orleans French Quarter, a hotel she knows quite well. Like this present silence overcoming the welter in her, before she stepped from her house in Pensacola a little over three hours ago she yanked her hair back into a ponytail and simply stroked a hasty touch of lipstick onto her lips but she then was moved to put on her favorite little black dress, a sleeveless sheath, a prêt-à-porter Chanel she'd had for years, put it on slowly in the muffled silence of her walk-in closet, listening to the Chanel's faint rustle going over her, letting the silk lick her down the thighs. She turned forty-nine years old two months ago on her deck, alone with a single-malt, looking out at the Bayou Texar going dark in the twilight. She wore makeup that night, for herself, prompted by the Scotch, and she wore her hair in a French twist, and she knew, in spite of everything, that she looked thirty-something, even early-thirty-something. And she knows now that she looks all of forty-nine. All and more as the door to her car opens and she lifts her face to a gaunt, long-jawed, middle-aged man, a man she recognizes.
He recognizes her, too. "Ah," he says. "Welcome back, Mrs ..." and he snags on her name, even as she forces her body to turn, forces her feet to the pavement outside, and she rises from the seat.
She sees him duck a little, to check out the passenger side of the car. He is looking for her husband.
"If you can just take care of the car," she says, wanting only to stop any small talk, wanting only to close the door behind her in her room.
"I'm sorry," the man says. "I used to be better at names."
"Beau, isn't it?"
"Beau. Yes. Thanks for remembering. I used to be better at that." And he steps to the rear of the car, seeing her small Gucci upright bag lying in the back seat. He reaches for the door handle.
"Beau," Kelly says, firmly, "I can handle my bag. Just do the car."
Beau withdraws his hand. "The car," he says. "Sure."
"I'm sorry," Kelly says. "Hays."
"Mrs. Hays," Beau says, brightening. "Of course. Glad to have you back."
And now she stops on the sidewalk before the door to the hotel, and she lets go of the handle of her rolling bag. She can turn and stop Beau, who has only this moment closed the driver door of the car, she can stop him and she can get back into her car and drive away. Ah, but to where. To the house. To Hell with the house. She doesn't want the house. Someone laughs down the street.
She turns to look. It is a small sound from this distance, but she heard it clearly. A young man and a young woman lean into each other at the door of a bar at the corner of Bourbon Street. She knows the bar, too. The young couple in this moment and perhaps the bar twenty-five years ago and half a dozen times since: these are things she can consider. But nothing else for now. The rest is carefully put away. The rest is inside the bag, whose handle she now grasps. She will go in. And she does. She goes up the steps and through the door into the Olivier House, an early nineteenth-century townhouse with a Federal façade of plastered brick and a labyrinthine Creole inner life with loggias and two courtyards and slave quarters and four floors of galleried rooms.
And she is at the end of the entrance hall, near the parlor door, and she is glad the young man at the desk is a stranger and she has her key and is through the double doors behind him and crossing a small flagstone courtyard rimmed in banana trees and fig trees and she is through a low, curving loggia and into the larger courtyard with the swimming pool, but she turns at once up a staircase and she climbs one floor and another and she is breathless now, not from the climb but from the room before her.
Room 303. Two narrow black doors, each with three stacked panes of glass: fully half the doors are glass, and it surprises her; this is a thing she should remember well but she doesn't. The doors are hung with white ruffled curtains, and her hand jitters the key against the lock, unable to get it into the hole. She stops. She lowers her hand. She wants in badly, wants into this room that she came to feel was her own place in the Quarter. No. She always felt it was their place. But hers now. Entirely hers. And she wants in so badly that she cannot get in, from the very wanting of it. She breathes deeply. She raises her hand again and focuses on keeping it steady, and at last the key slips into the lock and the door is opening and she is inside and the door shuts behind her. She lets go of her bag. She closes her eyes.
The smell of the place is always the same. Old wood and old rugs and fresh sheets and from the open balcony doors the sweet but tainted smell of the Quarter, jasmine and roux and shellfish brine, beer and piss and mildew, and something of the river too, and the swamp, and a hard rain that passed by, and ozone and coffee and sex, Michael's smells and her smells: can all of this be inside her in this room in this moment? Probably. She is weeping.
* * *
And as Kelly lets the tears fall without even lifting a hand to them, the man she is still married to is across the Mississippi, driving fast, an hour west of New Orleans along Louisiana 18. On one side is the river, invisible behind the berm of the levee, and on the other side has been a run of tank farms and cane fields and strip malls and swamp, and Creole plantations too—Laura and St. Joseph and, at last, Oak Alley. Michael Hays slows his BMW. He put the top down when they crossed the cantilever bridge into the West Bank and took to the state two-lanes, and he has glanced at the woman beside him half a dozen times since then, watched her hair: she has tied it up tightly in a scarf but some tendrils have gotten free and are flaring behind her, a pallid yellow flame. Michael is fifty-five. The woman beside him, Laurie Pruitt, when she tells anyone of her boyfriend, which she has begun now to do—a few select friends, her mother—she told her mother last week and is determined never to speak of him to her again—Laurie always describes him as "a handsomely ripening fifty-five." She is twenty-nine. Michael has timed his glances from his periphery so she never sees him. He wishes simply to collect these snapshots of her. He has stifled even the impulse—which is strong in him—to reach out his hand and put it in this flame of her hair. If it could actually burn him, he might. A strong assault of feeling: this he could take. But not the gentle thing, though he knows this weekend at Oak Alley will inevitably bring that too. But waiting for word from Pensacola, he has stayed bound tightly inside himself.
Before them now is the quarter-mile alley of live oaks leading from the highway to the Big House, and Michael slows even more. He and Laurie both turn their heads, as they slide past, to look down the canopied corridor of trees. With the massive frame of the oaks, the Creole pavilion house shows only its wide, double-galleried face, fronted by two-story Tuscan columns, and then it is gone. And momentarily Michael slows almost to a stop and turns into the plantation grounds, passing a sign that announces: Antebellum Fashion Festival.
Before he accelerates again, Laurie says, "I wish we'd begun a year earlier."
He has had these what-can-you-possibly-be-thinking moments several times already with her. The wreckage he is leaving behind was inconveniently timed? He will not let her remark make him consider the wreckage now. And it is deeply in his nature not to make his inner life visible. So he shows nothing. If she looked at him, Laurie would not be able to tell if he even heard what she said. Not that this occurs to her. After only a moment's pause, she says, "There are twenty-eight oaks and twenty-eight columns around the house. It would be cool if I were twenty-eight this first time." He speeds up now on the perimeter road and she has said what she has to say, more for herself than for Michael, and that he makes no indication whatsoever he has heard is of no consequence to her. The Big House emerges fully as they run parallel to the alley of oaks, its dark, hipped roof rising to a widow's walk.
* * *
And Kelly is standing in the center of Room 303, at the foot of the four-poster double bed, with the posts and the canopy frame and two birds plucking at an overflowing basket of grapes on the headboard all done in black wrought iron. This and so many other things are as they always have been. The bed wall is exposed brick. The lamp on the night table is a sandalwood palm tree. The lamp on the desk on the opposite wall is a teak monkey in a fez, climbing another palm. He is draped with Mardi Gras beads. The beads may have changed over the years, but there have always been beads. The French windows are open to a trompe l'oeil balcony, a filigreed iron balustrade from one side of the jamb to the other. Nowhere to step outside. Just lean there and look down to the courtyard and out to the hipped and gabled roofs of the Quarter and to the sun, falling toward late afternoon in the western sky before her.
Laughter wafts into the room like a fresh scent from the street. Kelly leaves her bag behind and moves to the balcony. She looks down. In an open doorway to one of the pool-level suites, a young couple laughs and the woman nudges the man's shoulder with her forehead and he says something else and she lifts her face and laughs harder, though the sound strikes Kelly's ear only faintly, as faint as distant memory; the laughter has sounded in her enough to have drawn her to look but not enough to dissipate the murk in her head, her chest. She turns away, faces back into the room.
She looks at her bag sitting upright on the floor, its handle extended. She moves to the bag, grasps the handle. The laughter dies. She lifts her eyes to the door of the room. Outside, she herself waits to enter. Kelly at twenty-four. Perhaps the age of the woman in the courtyard. But Kelly in this present moment, holding tight at the handle of her rolling bag, squeezes back the memory, keeps the door shut. She angles the bag toward her, turns, pulls it to the side of the bed. She lowers the handle and bends and lifts the bag and places it gently on the mattress. She is breathing heavily, though the bag was light. She waits. She slows herself down. There is time yet. Perhaps even options of a sort. This whole process is to do one thing and then wait and then do another thing.
For now, open the bag: the zipper tab between her thumb and forefinger, the ripping sound, her hand tracing the bag, down and across and up. And she lifts the lid. Inside is a folded, bulky, white terry-cloth robe. But it is here only for padding. She unfolds the robe, and within are simply a bottle of Macallan cask-strength, single-malt Scotch and a bottle of Percocet.
* * *
Michael steps from his car into the driveway next to a pitched-roof cottage with a screened front porch and a wooden back deck. Surrounding the plantation grounds is the ongoing enterprise of the last hundred and seventy years at Oak Alley, sugarcane. The air still smells faintly of smoke and cane, the fall harvest having been completed only a short time ago, the crop cut and gone for processing and the stubble burned to the ground, leaving six hundred acres of dark rutted earth waiting for the new shoots. Michael takes in the smell, a pleasure he had not expected this weekend.
"It's wonderful," Laurie says. "More than I'd imagined."
Michael does not look at her but heads toward the trunk, lifting her Rollaboard from the back seat as he passes. He takes one step beyond the end of the car and puts her rolling bag on the driveway for her to pull. She's in the small front yard, her back to him, arms rising as if embracing the scene before her: another cottage on the service road and a maintenance shop farther out and then five hundred yards of naked cane fields to a distant line of trees marking an unseen railroad track. Her arms move on, though, and she clasps her hands at the back of her head. Her shoulders lift and pause and fall in a sweet sigh of contentment.
Michael doesn't see it. One by one he pulls Laurie's suitcase and a mate to Kelly's upright bag and his garment carrier out of the trunk, setting the larger bags beside each other and draping the garment bag over Laurie's suitcase.
He turns to close the trunk and she is beside him now. "Thanks for letting me choose this place," she says.
He lowers the trunk and gently clicks it shut. He turns to her and she is kissing him hard on the mouth and he is fine with bodies, fine with using the language of the body, and he presses her close and the kiss goes on and then ends and they break. Laurie looks Michael in the eyes.
She says, "Now that's way too somber a look after a kiss like that." She cocks her head slightly. "Don't you think?"
And he clenches inside. What more does she want from him? He is a man of words in the courtroom, this Michael Hays. But the expectation of words in a circumstance like this always makes him take the Fifth—silently—no matter what those words might be if he were inclined to figure them out. So instead, suddenly clumsy even with his body, he kisses her again, trying for the forehead—given his putoffedness—but his incipient move prompts her to raise her face to him, as she assumes he's after her lips. Consequently, he ends up kissing her high on the bridge of her nose. Which gives even the usually chilled-out Laurie her own what-can-you-possibly-be-thinking moment.
But now they are pulling their luggage along, and she has taken his garment bag over her arm without his even asking, and they are through the porch door and the cottage door and moving through their living room full of cherrywood Chippendale reproductions, and Laurie leads the way into the dining room and then, to the right, into a hallway that leads back toward the front of the cottage and into the master bedroom. The bed is large, mahogany, the four high, fluted posts with carved rice plants. She stops, leaves the luggage on the floor, moves around the corner of the foot of the bed with one hand on the post like a stripper doing a slow turn on her pole.
He has stopped, blocked by the bags on the floor.
"I love it," she says. "I love it all."
She puts her hand now on the floral chintz quilt. But she pauses and straightens and looks at Michael. "Of course," she says. "Now I get your mood. Duh."
She does not elaborate, and Michael looks at her and suppresses a bristling at her trying to read his mood. She has cocked her head at him. He waits for more.
"You were here with her," she says.
He leaves the upright where it sits and collapses the rolling handle of Laurie's suitcase. He lifts the bag. He finds the heft of the thing a comfort at the moment: the physical focus helps him stop the memories. He steps around the bags on the floor and puts the suitcase on the luggage stand by the dresser.
"Did you come for the festival?" Laurie says.
He turns back to the other bags and she twirls on the bedpost again, once, and heads for him. He stops, straightens, waits.
"Did she dress up?" she says.
"No," he says.
She is before him now. Smiling very slightly at one corner of her mouth. Smelling of something with patchouli that Kelly used to wear. "So I'll be your first Scarlett," Laurie says.
"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," Michael says, sounding harsher than he wants, in spite of this being, prima facie, a joke.
Excerpted from A Small Hotel by ROBERT OLEN BUTLER Copyright © 2011 by Robert Olen Butler. Excerpted by permission of Grove Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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