A Novel in 36 Voices
By Jennie Shortridge, Teri Hein, William Dietrich, Kathleen Alcalá, Maria Dahvana Headley, Stacey Levine, Indu Sundaresan, Craig Welch, Matthew Amster-Burton, Ed Skoog, David Lasky, Greg Stump, Kevin O'Brien, Nancy Rawles, Suzanne Selfors, Carol Cassella, Karen Finneyfrock, Robert Dugoni, Jarret Middleton, Deb Caletti, Kevin Emerson, Kit Bakke, Julia Quinn, Mary Guterson, Erik Larson, Garth Stein, Frances McCue, Erica Bauermeister, Sean Beaudoin, Dave Boling, Peter Mountford, Stephanie Kallos, Jamie Ford, Clyde Ford, Elizabeth George, Susan Wiggs
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2011 Seattle7Writers
All rights reserved.
HALFWAY UP THE BASEMENT STEPS of the Hotel Angeline, laden with a heavy stack of industrial sheets and towels, Alexis Austin was beginning to think that perhaps she'd taken on too heavy a load.
If I just keep moving, she thought. I only have six more steps—
The screech of a crow made her jump, dropping towels and sheets, even though she was getting used to Habib's racket coming from LJ's room. The crazy old man had rescued the crow from the alley behind the residential hotel the month before, finding it there with a broken wing, and all of the residents complained about the noise.
"LJ!" she yelled, and retraced her steps down the stairs, picking up swaths of white fabric, pungent with vestigial bleach. The stairs creaked and sighed as they had been doing for nearly one hundred years. Alexis shivered, imagining that sound in the old days when the hotel was a funeral home, morticians and grieving families treading them every day. Death had always felt close at the Hotel Angeline.
"LJ!" she yelled again, and the bearded man appeared at the top of the stairs, Habib on his shoulder.
"Yo, little sis," he said. "What's up?"
"That crow has to go," Alexis grumbled, but she knew her mother would never have made their dear friend give up his pet.
Her mother, Edith, had been running the Hotel Angeline—named for the daughter of Chief Sealth, Seattle's namesake—far longer than the fourteen years Alexis had been alive. The people who lived here now were the people who had always lived here, society's rabble-rousers and rebels from days gone by. Hippies, some people called them, but her mother said they were all heroes, and that she would always take care of them, no matter what.
Only now there was no way her mother could help. Three months ago she'd gotten sick with what seemed like the triple-whammy flu—coughing, headaches, rashes, exhaustion—and Alexis had been doing more to take care of the hotel and its residents before school and after school, making the afternoon tea in the parlor, collecting the rents. No one had inquired after her mother in quite some time, and Alexis stopped now on the stairs, sheets wound around her arms, towels spilling all the way to the basement, and swallowed back salt, then drew a breath.
"You could at least help me, LJ," she said to the old man. He was like a father to her, truly, and he was far nicer to her than she was to him sometimes. Her own father had gone AWOL before her birth, that's how much he had cared about her. Her mother didn't like to talk about him. Alexis suspected he was dead. LJ would sometimes say, "Your old man was one cool dude," and when she'd press for more, he'd shake his head. "Promised Edith," he'd say, shrugging. For as long as she'd known LJ, he'd always kept his promises.
One thing Alexis knew. Her dad had not been white. While her mother was pale, Alexis's skin was latte creamy in tone. She may have been half black, half Asian, or half Nicaraguan, for all she knew. Not that it mattered on Capitol Hill in Seattle. Everyone was some shade of coffee or another.
LJ hobbled down the steps, Habib flapping his wings and cawing, and helped her pick up the spilled laundry. "I always got your back, little one," he said. "Don't you worry."
After school, Alexis ran in through the back door into the kitchen, slung her book bag onto the table, and started to get out things for tea. Her mother's good silver tea set. Platters for the politically correct Fig Newmans (Paul Newman's alternative to Newtons) and granola bars all the residents preferred over cookies Alexis loved, like Oreos and Chips Ahoy.
She poured her mother's Fino sherry into the leaded-crystal decanter. Edith had taken it medicinally, every day at four p.m. and many of the residents had taken up the habit, some drinking it clear through to bedtime.
Alexis carried the heavy tray into the parlor, where old Ursula had already parked her knitting bag and peg leg—her choice over a more conventional prosthetic after losing her leg to diabetes. In her glory days, Ursula had been a Seafair Pirate, one of the theatrical eccentrics who dresses up in pirate garb and scares children during the city's Seafair festivities each summer. Though long retired, she still preferred to speak in pirate parlance. "Argh," she said to Alexis. "Yer two minutes late."
"Sorry, sorry." Alexis busied herself setting out cups and saucers, teaspoons, sugar, and real cream in a cracked pitcher they'd used to replace the missing silver creamer.
"My pipes arrrgh all broke up in my room," Ursula growled. "I don't suppose yer mother'll call a plumber."
"I can take care of it," Alexis said. "Is water leaking? Do I need to do it now?"
"Yes, there's water leaking! And even though I'm an amphibian of sorts, living my life on the sea"—Alexis rolled her eyes—"I still don't like getting me boot wet." Luckily for the old pirate, her peg leg had a rubber bottom.
The other residents had started to filter in, and everything was set, so Alexis ran up the stairs to 307, Ursula's apartment, and let herself in with the passkey she kept on a chain around her neck. Indeed, there was water all over the floor, and from the smell of it, Alexis suspected this little plumbing thing hadn't just happened that day.
"Jesus H. Christ in a box," she said, trying to trace the water flow to its source. It seemed to be coming from the bathroom, not the kitchen. Alexis sighed, then went in and kneeled in the muck to peer under the sink, pulling aside the skull-and-crossbones flag that obscured the pipes. Sure enough, water spurted from the hot-water supply. She reached up, pinched the bolt, and tried twisting it tighter, but water gushed out more fervently, soaking her plaid miniskirt and the vintage sweater her friend Linda had stolen for her from Value Village.
It was hard not to be pissed off at her mother, whose responsibility all this was, and who never would have let it get this far. She'd had a way of ferreting out trouble before it started, knowing when something was amiss before it got too bad.
"LJ!" Alexis yelled, hoping he would hear her, but knowing him, he'd already started hitting the sherry. "Oh, for God's sake, old man!" she yelled, jumping to her feet, charging down the stairs. At the bottom, she stopped and tried to calm herself. Her mother always said "These people are our family, Alexis. Treat them with all the love and respect you do me."
And Alexis had, her entire life. She went now to the parlor, skirt stuck to her thighs, water dribbling down her shins, and saw the old friends gathered together, arguing about the two-state solution, the situation in Latin America, the tanked economy, the battle to legalize marijuana, all of them animated and excited as if they were still twenty years old and in the thick of the fight.
She wrapped her arms around her ribs, feeling lucky to have so many people in her family, in her home. If only she could get rid of the crow.
"Um, LJ?" she said sweetly. "Could you come upstairs and help me with something?"
He looked up from his conversation with Deaf Donald, the former Greenpeace warrior who'd lost his hearing in an action that required deep-sea diving in the waters off Japan.
"Yes, ma'am?" LJ winked at her with watery blue eyes.
"Never mind," she said. "You just have your ... tea. I can take care of it."
"By the way, my bonny Alexis," Ursula said. "I ain't gonna be able to get you rent again this month. But my ship's coming in, any day now."
Alexis nodded. Her stomach churned. "I'm sure it is," she said, and went back down to the basement to search for a wrench.
Her mother had been the landlady of all time, über-efficient, unbelievably kind even under pressure. She knew how to unstop sinks and fix electrical sockets, how to calm frightened residents when the police came knocking at the door—almost always just collecting money for the Police Charity Fund. Alexis wasn't sure she'd inherited the landlady gene from her mom, but, well, she had to be one anyway. There was nothing to be done about it.
Down in the damp dark of the basement, she looked among the old embalming tools and makeup brushes, tubing and trays. "A wrench, a wrench," she mumbled. "My life for a stupid wrench."
Squeezing between coffins, she went to look in the long pullout trays, where the newly dead had been stored years ago before being prepped for their final farewells. "Damn," she said. Where had her mother kept the tools?
"Mom!" she yelled, and then it came to her. In the drawers, sweetheart, beneath the stairs. Alexis walked over and pulled open the top drawer and ... sure enough, tools of all kinds: hammers, screwdrivers, Allen wrenches, channel-locks, and yes, a small crescent wrench. Just what she was looking for.
She could do it. She could run this place, pay the bills, and do everything else her mother had always done. Alexis was certain of it.
She breathed in the dampness, filled her lungs with the musty remnants of the long, strange history of the Hotel Angeline. She would make peace with LJ's crow. She would make sure everyone was happy in this place, until nature had its way with each of the residents upon their deaths.
If only she could do the same for her mother.
IT WAS PERHAPS SEVEN THOUSAND times a day that Alexis wondered what it would be like to have a slightly different life—you know, one with things more ... well, routine or normal. Whatever that was—presumably something she would never quite know, not at the rate things were happening these days. There was too much to keep up with to manage normal at the same time. Alexis lived for the little moments she could steal just for herself, between school and duties at the hotel. Moments with Linda, especially.
Alexis glanced at the clock. Linda was late, as Linda always was. Linda, who always assumed forgiveness and Linda, who always got it. She said it was because she was Puerto Rican that she was always late. It was genetic or something. And Alexis said fine, because it meant she got to be with Linda. It was just another thing to get used to. Alexis's mother's code was punctuality and she had drilled it into her daughter. Sometimes it could even mean jumping the gun a bit in certain circumstances. Alexis smiled at the irony of this and fingered the bottom button on her blouse. She bit down on her tongue at the feeling that welled up—the feeling that couldn't be described. It was the thing that reminded her she wasn't a hundred percent in control, and it was the thing that every now and again made her wonder if she really could pull this whole landlady thing off.
Damn that crow, she thought, letting go of the button.
"Yoo-hoo, señorita," she heard someone call through the crack of the front door. Linda was there, having shoved the door open to where the floor had warped. Couldn't her mother have found someone with a planer to shear off the bottom of the door so it could swing open again freely? Now who was going to be doing that? LJ? Yo lo dudo, as Linda said, her favorite expression: I doubt it. Quite certainly Donald wasn't going to leap to the cause, and neither would Ursula. And so the door stuck anytime anyone opened it, halfway trapping people in or halfway trapping people out, depending on how you looked at it. Someone of Herculean strength could push it all the way open on the first shove, but Alexis needed a shoulder and a minimum of three pushes.
Linda slid in through the door neatly, knowing better than to put her shoulder to it. Behind her she pulled in the worn backpack she carried everywhere. Alexis's heart skipped a beat.
Like Alexis, Linda was brown, and like Alexis, she didn't know her father, although she knew more about him than Alexis knew about hers. How else could they have landed in Seattle if her father hadn't been chasing his dream of making it big in the music world? He was a big fish/small pond kind of guy who played the trumpet à la King Garcia (or so he thought). And he also thought that in order to get noticed, he should play where they least expected him—not in New Orleans, or in New York but, of all places, Seattle, Washington. Why not? So they left New York behind and ended up living in White Center, south of Seattle. It was a full two years before Linda's father riffed his way right out of town and Linda and her mother were on their own.
So much in common: absent fathers, present mothers, and that stupid governing committee they were both put on at John Marshall Alternative School before it was closed down. Their teacher Audra said the two of them could run that school if left to their own devices. The transition back to the "normal" Garfield High had been tough on both of them.
Maybe that was why they gravitated together—because things just didn't work the same for them as for other kids. Or maybe it was something else.
"Hey," Alexis said with a little wave, trying to act casual.
"Hey, sorry I'm late." Linda brushed her hair away from her eyes. "I hope you weren't waiting."
"You want to head downstairs and fold some laundry? There must be some sheets and towels down there that need a bit of attention, yes?"
Linda's "fold some laundry" was really a euphemism for something else. Something else was really the thing that in some ways was the most important thing to her these days, the thing that made everything else OK. When they had come upstairs after that first time, they told her mother they were down there folding laundry. Now they folded one, maybe two sheets or towels—almost as foreplay—and would carry them upstairs, part of the ritual. Some might call the coffin thing sick but they called it just fine. And maybe even good clean fun.
But they wouldn't be going to the basement. That was certain. In spite of how much fun they'd had in the coffins that one time—OK, more than one time—today was not the day for anyone to go down there. Especially not to do that.
"We can't," Alexis said, trying to think of an excuse. "My mom's down there."
"No problem." Linda shrugged. "She won't be down there all day. We can just sit here and wait." She slumped down on the first step of the staircase and unzipped her backpack, extracting a pack of Marlboros.
"Hey!" Alexis said, almost glad for the distraction. "You can't smoke in here. You shouldn't even smoke anyway. It's disgusting. Nobody will kiss you, you know."
"Meaning you?" Linda took a smoke from the pack, tapped it on the hard case, stuck it between her lips. It bobbed there, unlit, as she spoke. "You saying you don't want to kiss me anymore, Alexis? Is that what this is all about? Because, you know, other people think I'm fine." She stood, shouldered her pack.
"No," Alexis said, "that's not what I'm saying, but—"
"But nothing, girlfriend. You don't want me around. I can take a hint." When she walked out, she left the door ajar.
Alexis hated it when she and Linda were fighting.
"Linda," Alexis called after her as she slung on her bag. "Wait up! Maybe we can find some sheets that need folding somewhere else!" She ran out the door and down the steps, then back up to slam the door closed. It took three hard pulls before the latch clicked.
Alexis turned to run after Linda, but there the girl stood at the bottom of the stoop, cigarette now sticking out from behind her ear. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Hotel Angeline by Jennie Shortridge, Teri Hein, William Dietrich, Kathleen Alcalá, Maria Dahvana Headley, Stacey Levine, Indu Sundaresan, Craig Welch, Matthew Amster-Burton, Ed Skoog, David Lasky, Greg Stump, Kevin O'Brien, Nancy Rawles, Suzanne Selfors, Carol Cassella, Karen Finneyfrock, Robert Dugoni, Jarret Middleton, Deb Caletti, Kevin Emerson, Kit Bakke, Julia Quinn, Mary Guterson, Erik Larson, Garth Stein, Frances McCue, Erica Bauermeister, Sean Beaudoin, Dave Boling, Peter Mountford, Stephanie Kallos, Jamie Ford, Clyde Ford, Elizabeth George, Susan Wiggs. Copyright © 2011 Seattle7Writers. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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