My short story What We Are was posted this month in The Bookends Review.
Photo credit: Jake Stark, Unsplash
Thank you Jordan Blum for selecting my story for publication.
what we are
By Gila Green
Posted on August 12, 2019
The summer I turned nineteen I was broke. I had three more years of university to pay for and who knew when the Canadian government would cut student loans? I was living on my own in Ottawa. My parents were having a love-affair with Western Canada and I didn't receive as much as a postcard.
I was ill-equipped to compete in the job market in a small city that boasts two large universities and a big college. The economy was in recession and four empty summer months stretched out before me like a treacherous road. I was not the waitress type and the thought of selling ice-cream cones on Ottawa's only beach held no appeal.
After weeks of combing through the classifieds, I saw an advertisement for a front desk clerk at the Downy Woodpecker; a rundown motel, the kind you see in movies where the main characters have been run-off the road and walk for miles until they see a light in the distance.
I had never stayed at a motel before let alone worked in one, but I could make change and the advertisement didn't mention knowledge of French. I had to take a half-hour bus ride to the interview and I was supposed to ask for Salvatore.
The motel office was built on the road, the thirty rooms crouched behind it. The parking lot was large and faced an isolated bus station. During the daytime this did not frighten me, but motels were open twenty-four hours.
The door creaked loudly as I opened it, while I steadied myself on the slanted step. Salvatore was waiting for me. I could not tell if the couch was dirty from his pants or if his pants were dirty from the couch.
There was a sign on the counter that read: no cheques. On top of the counter, which was as long as your average desk, there was a cash register, not the computerized ones you see today, but the kind children play with in kindergartens. There were two wooden shelves stocked with chocolate bars on the bare wall behind the cash: Snickers, Mars, Aero and cigarettes: du Maurier, Player's Light, Export.
Salvatore looked like his name. He was big, Italian, and he didn't waste words.
"What do you do now?"
"When can you start?"
"There's morning shift, that's from seven until three. Afternoon is three to ten and the overnight. For that you sleep on the couch and you lock."
"I can do morning and afternoon."
"Pari does overnights anyway."
I would soon learn that Pari was petite, a Bombay native, and fearless.
"Come behind the cash."
Salvatore barely fit in the space allotted between the cash register and the wall. Besides the shelves there was one swivel chair, a large registration book, pencils, pens, erasers, liquid paper, a roll of tape, and a telephone.
"There are the rates, nightly and weekly. For quickies you take cash only."
"Do you hear me? Cash! Write quickie. Those are the only rooms you need to go into."
I swallowed. My stomach muscles clenched. I had no desire to go into the rooms—ever. The zeros on my bank account flashed behind my eyelids.
"Got it," I answered.
"When you see them leave, change the sheets, make them again. Sometimes we rent those rooms out three or four times in a night."
I bit my lip. Already I imagined the smells, the stained sheets.
"Maids in the daytime," Salvatore was saying when I tuned in. "You don't move from the front desk. Maids are not legals, so say nothing when the cops come."
Cops? Was I still in Ottawa?
"Number seven is the waterbed room, that's an extra 50 bucks per night. It's written there." Salvatore points to the ledger. "What else? Jerry. He comes in the first of every odd month after the welfare cheques go out. There's a half room behind the laundry room where the maids smoke. Number three. We can only rent it out on Canada Day to regulars because the washing machines are noisy, so that's Jerry's.
"He gives you his entire cheque, signs it in front of your eyes. Then it's his for the month. Don't mind the glue. He don't bother you. Chocolate, cigarettes, it's all here, the prices." Salvatore points to the ledge again. "You mark down every time you sell and leave the next girl with the accounts done, so there's no funny business. Capiche? You look Italian, but you're not. I know all of the Italians. You a Jew? A Jew is good behind the cash."
I blinked a couple of times and Salvatore was still there in his dirty, navy pants and white polo shirt with a collar. He was clean-shaven and he was right, I am Jewish.
"Ah, you're waiting for me to tell you the salary. It's $12 an hour, almost double minimum wage and no days off. You got a boyfriend? He can come over in the evenings if you want. He can sleep on the couch, and watch TV."
Salvatore grunted and shook my hand.
"Tomorrow at seven."
The interview was over. I went home.
"Did you get the job?" Sean, the guy I was dating, asked when I entered my cheap one-bedroom apartment.
"I thought you said you were only staying for the night and yeah, I got the job."
"Great. Congratulations. I was going to go, but you know my buddy never did his part. Maybe tomorrow he'll get his act together."
I was irritated and relieved at the same time. I would be able to pay my rent and eat this summer and it looked like Sean was my new boyfriend, but it didn't seem as though I would be able to put Downy Woodpecker Motel on my future curriculum vitae and Sean was poorer than me.
The next day I put on a white blouse and knee-length black skirt and boarded a 6:30 a.m. bus. The other passengers appeared to be employed as civil servants in spotless suits and ties, not like prospective clients for the waterbed room. A hot red rash spread across my face and I quickly turned to the window and kept my face glued to it until the end of the ride. When I entered the motel office there was a girl sitting at the front desk who looked my age. She spoke first.
"Hi, I'm Camelia."
Camelia gave me a big smile and extended her hand. She was overweight, dressed like me with the addition of glasses. She had a friendly, businesslike way of speaking.
"This is the ledger," she began.
I realized then that I was half-expecting someone in a low-cut black negligee to open the door and I laughed out loud.
"What's funny?" Camelia asked, but she was laughing, too. "It's good experience. I want a career in tourism."
In my mind I read the newspaper article, "I started my career in tourism at the Downy Woodpecker," cooed the powerful Miss Camelia, as she is affectionately known among her girls.
"Salvatore pays us on time and he doesn't come around much. There's only me and Pari and now you. The maids come early. All of the laundry is done right here. The evenings are quieter, you can watch TV and I see Salvatore wrote you don't do nights. That's okay, Pari does most and I don't mind sleeping here once in a while."
Camelia didn't mention the customers. My stomach dropped at the thought of asking her about them.
For two weeks I was a front desk clerk at a cheap motel. The clients were regular families visiting Ottawa for a couple of days who wanted a clean room and a shower. Sometimes they came in for cigarettes or candy bars. There were few requests beyond a new lightbulb or extra towels.
I spent my shifts reading Victorian novels and making sympathetic clucking noises to the maids, all three of whom were from the Caribbean and were not receiving child support from their absent husbands. When I had to work until 10 p.m. Sean showed up around 7 or 8 to enjoy free cable TV, free air conditioning, and discount Mars bars.
Then one night I looked up from A Tale of Two Cities to see a white middle-aged man in a suit and tie. He was unremarkable, but his voice trembled and he kept turning to the window. My eyes followed his gaze and I saw a woman in a skirt that barely covered her underwear, pacing back and forth outside.
"How much for 20 minutes?"
At first, I was too startled to say anything. Was this legal?
"Umm, 50 bucks," I responded. I began to sweat.
He dropped a fifty onto my ledger book. I handed him the key.
Another fifty landed in my lap.
I handed him the key to number seven, wrote down quickie and $100 in the ledger. The couple disappeared. I looked at the clock: 8:20. Where was Sean anyway?
I waited until nine before I locked the cash, and the front door, and walked across the parking lot toward number seven. Looking in the window, I made out the bed and the side tables, but I couldn't see much beyond that. I knocked, even though the key was in the door.
The bed looked like any unmade bed. There was an empty bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken on the floor. I was to learn this was standard: either Kentucky or Burger King wrappers were left strewn across the only table.
Holding my breath and wishing for plastic gloves, I gathered up the sheets without breathing or turning on the lights. I quickly made up the bed, and learned that waterbeds are much harder to make up than regular beds.
Gathering up the garbage in one hand and the dirty sheets in the other, I left without checking the bathroom. Broke or not, I had my limitations. Never has so much hot water and soap passed over my hands. Salvatore was right; sometimes the room was rented out an hour later.
The next night the daughter of an old family friend bounced in with her boyfriend. She was the one everybody called, The Prettiest.
"Hi!" she exclaimed. She flipped her long hair off her shoulder. "What are you doing here? You work here? I've never seen you. Tom and I come all the time."
"I just started. This is my summer job, you know, with the recession and everything."
"Cool," she said.
"You come here all the time?" I asked.
"Sure. Number seven. We love the waterbed room, don't we Tom?"
The Prettiest held out her slender polished hand. I understood that her last comment doubled as a request.
"It's free right now, you're lucky. It isn't always." I sounded like an idiot.
After that, I decided I could take whatever the Downy Woodpecker had in store for me in stride.
"Don't forget about Jerry. He'll be showing up any day now, maybe even today," Camelia said. She was on her way out for an early breakfast and I was settling in to the morning shift which meant recounting the cigarette packs and chocolate bars.
When Jerry entered, I was reading. His face was covered in whitish sticky strands, but they were concentrated around his nose. When he signed over his cheque, the glue dripping from his nostrils covered the counter top. It took me 30 minutes to scrape it off. I wore the plastic gloves I had hidden under the Aero bars. He did not emerge from his half-room for four weeks. You knew he was there because no matter how much air freshener you sprayed to mask the smell from parents and policemen, it was like shoveling in a snowstorm.
As it turned out the parents who checked-in were either too exhausted from driving the long distances between Canadian cities, or too distracted by their kids to bother asking about the peculiar odor. The policeman never even nodded in the direction of the laundry room.
At least two or three times a week the same police officer would show up.
"What's a cute, young lady like you doing here?" He'd always ask if it was after 7 p.m. Then he'd present me with a photograph, sometimes in color, sometimes in black and white.
"Have you seen this guy? Take a good look."
I was grateful to respond that I had not.
"I know your uncle. Goldberg is tops," the police officer would invariably say, after he asked me my name.
"Yeah, I know."
My uncle was a defense attorney and a lot closer to the police than to my father.
"What's Goldie's niece doing working here, anyhow?"
"My uncle's not paying my tuition."
"You're sharp like him, I can tell. Well, you call us if anything comes up. We're looking for this one. Take another look at the photo. I'll run the license plates in the lot while you do that, okay?"
"Sure. Thank you."
Toward the end of the summer I was counting how many more weeks I had left in my tourism career. I reckoned by the end of next year the recession would be a thing of the past and I had survived.
During one of my last shifts, a lone man entered and asked for a room. He had blond, curly hair, wore tight jeans, a tight t-shirt, and glasses. He returned 15 minutes later.
"Player's!" he demanded.
"There's no more. Sorry."
Salvatore was late with refills.
His face turned color and I felt beads of sweat break out above my lip.
I snatched a pack off the shelf.
"That'll be $5.50, please." He threw a five-dollar bill at me. "Sorry, they are $5.50 a pack."
"$5.50! What are you? Some kind of kike?"
I realized then how alone I was. It was 8 p.m. Pari's shift was in two hours. The maids left by 3:00. Sean had finally found a job working nights in a video rental shop. The police drop-ins were unreliable. The summer was ending, so the motel, isolated on both sides, was empty. I never thought I would, but I longed for a quickie to appear. I would have gratefully changed any number of sheets and thrown out the greasy Burger King wrappers with my bare hands.
He threw two quarters at me and they bounced over the counter and onto the floor. Trembling, I handed over the cigarettes. I exhaled when the door closed behind him.
The next morning, I lunged for the ledger: he had not checked out. He called once to bark that he did not want any maid service; not to change sheets, the garbage or the towels. During the day I was uneasy. As the maids waved goodbye, terror rose up in me. It was nearing the end of August, but Jerry wouldn't be around until the last day and I knew the airplane glue blocked his ears. I couldn't complain to Salvatore; he knew I was abandoning him on the first of September.
After three days the maids ranted: He was living with the same sheets and towels for days! Why doesn't he want his room cleaned? How come they just hear howling when they knock? Does he have a dog in there?
On the fifth day the beginning of my shift coincided with the arrival of the police. There was no response behind the door, which had been jammed shut. The three police cars in the lot meant six policemen were circling the Downy Woodpecker. I thought there must be an easier way to fund my education.
When the door was finally smashed open the Kike Caller as I had taken to referring to him was dead. They never told me how he did it.
The maids were in an uproar. Illegal or not, no one was willing to clean the room. The tenant had shat all over: bathroom, bedroom, towels, sheets and the Kike Caller had been lying in the middle of it for who knows how long.
Finally, those brave single mothers wore Salvatore down: he agreed to call in a professional cleaning company and have the carpets replaced. It was either that or close the room down because those women swore they'd swim back to Barbados with their babies under their arms before they'd set foot in that room.
Even after classes began, I found myself thinking about the Kike Caller. Were those the last words he ever said: What are you? Some kind of kike?
– gila green