[Help wanted ad for a field research assistant]
Even Beatrice, my best friend and partner-in-crime, wouldn't take the job.
"I love you darling, as always," she replied to my latest entreaty, "But do you realize what would happen if we set loose on the countryside? We would never get any work done, subsequently lose our jobs, and become beggars or prostitutes. And when things got really bad, I would be forced to cannibalize you." She was right, of course. We could never work together. Besides, she was now as a nurse under a handsome doctor whom, she assured me, would soon be her fiance--an opportunity she did not want to miss. My fruitless search dragged on.
Late in the spring I found myself holed up at the Paper Street Hotel, a tired, slouching structure too far from the main road and too close to the train tracks. My wallet grew desperately thin as I waited there with waning patience for the University to forward me my next paycheck. To make matters worse, I had come down with a cold that congealed all of the fluids in my body into a sluggish green mass, intent on oozing out through my nose and ears.
Every morning I trudged down to the lobby in search of my mail, weaving among its unique clientele to get to the front desk. There was the old bearded man, a permanent resident who sucked on an empty pipe and told bawdy jokes to anyone who dallied near his chair. The boney woman with perfect hair and awful makeup, shuffling back and forth an unending parade of bored-looking men. The haggard ex-convict whose eyes wandered quietly. The desk clerk who would talk endlessly about his newest plans and schemes, falling quickly silent when the manager came around. And myself, red-nosed and wrapped in a blanket, holding my voice in a lower key than my clogged sinuses could account for. We were quite a crew.
Another gray morning brought no paycheck and no job inquiries. I listened patiently to the clerk's newest hustle--something implausible involving fashionable women's shoes--in hopes that he might like me enough to let me pay for my room on credit if my money ran out, which was due to be soon. I buried my face in my blanket to muffle a sneeze; when I looked up the manager had arrived and thankfully broken off the clerk's monologue. I quickly made my exit and shuffled over to the stairs, passing by the kitchen door where the ex-convict chatted with the cook. He held up his hand as I passed.
"You want some tea or something?" the ex-con asked. "For your cold?" I tried to refuse, but started into a pitiful fit of coughing instead.
He turned back to the kitchen. "Something for a cold and something for my stomach, eh?"
"Son, what you need ain't tea, you need sleep," the cook replied. The ex-con shook his head and asked again, adamant. The cook sighed, shrugged, and set a kettle to boil.
"You look even worse than this kid," the cook appraised me when he brought each of us a steaming mug. "Now I want those mugs back when you're done, and I don't want to have to clean out your cigarette butts--or I'll make your next shift hell, boy." He returned to the kitchen, closing the door behind him.
"Thanks," I said, raising my mug.
The ex-con smiled wearily and raised his mug in return. He wandered out to the lobby as I climbed my way back into bed for a long sleep.
I woke up late the next morning to a clearer day and a clearer head. It was the kind of morning where you are awoken slowly by sunshine, birds chirping, and trains pounding their tracks too close to your window. My nose still leaked profusely but my lungs were dry, and I felt like things were finally taking a turn for the best. I eagerly made my way down to the front desk in search of mail.
My enthusiasm was premature. There was nothing at the desk for me but a room bill I could barely afford to pay. If my paycheck did not come tomorrow, I would be in real trouble.
"Hey, Cle, wake up." Across the lobby, the boney woman pushed and prodded the ex-con, who dozed uneasily in a poorly upholstered chair. "C'mon hon, don't be sleeping now."
"Why don't you let him sleep?" I asked, approaching. "He really looks like he could use it."
The boney woman shook her head, and tucked a loose curl back into place. "We's talking, and he made me promise to wake him up if he nodded off. He hates sleeping you know." She took a drag on her cigarette and shook him again, more vigorously.
With a sharp gasp he jerked up, looking around and panting shakily. He wiped beads of sweat from his forehead on the cuff of his sleeve, and his eyes anxiously surveying the room.
"Are you all right?" I asked. He nodded, and sat up straighter in his chair. I gave a light smile. "Thanks for the tea, by the way, I think it really helped."
"What?" he asked distractedly. I held up my empty mug from the previous morning, and recognition slowly trickled across his face. "Oh. You're looking a lot better."
I smiled sympathetically. "Wish I could say the same for you."
He laughed hoarsely. "This is me looking wonderful." He stretched and muffled a yawn, still shaking a bit. "Sorry, what was your name?"
"I'm Nelly." He introduced himself as Cle, and the boney woman as Lonnie. She stubbed out her cigarette into the tea leaves at the bottom of his mug.
Cle pushed himself up from the chair and exhaled slowly, as if to blow away the rest of whatever dream had plagued him. He lit one of Lonnie's cigarettes, took a drag, then passed it to her. She accepted it and waved him away.
"You hungry?" he nodded towards the kitchen. My stomach growled in answer. I hadn't had anything since yesterday's tea. We wandered into the kitchen and began searching for some breakfast. I wondered aloud if the cook minded us being there, but Cle was unfazed. He'd been working in the kitchen for a few months in exchange for his room, and besides, Jeb, the cook, was rarely up early Saturday mornings. This was not, you may recall, a five-star hotel.
Cle set a large kettle to boil and I uncovered some eggs. "I'd really like an omelette if you can make it," I suggested, aware that this was turning into a big favor, but unable to contain my excitement. I had not had a good meal in days, and I did not want to waste this opportunity.
He gave an acquiescent grin and lit a burner under a large greasy skillet. "That's what, like an egg pancake?"
"Sure." I hunted for other ingredients, and piled sprouting onions and wilty greens on the chopping block. Looking around for a meat locker, I asked if he had any ham we could add. Cle shrugged unhelpfully. I watched as he started chopping the vegetables, and decided that would make a good enough breakfast.
The door swung wide and Jeb stumbled in. He pushed past us blearily to a pot of day-old coffee by the sink, and set it to warm on the stove. He nodded at Cle. "Seeing as you're fussing around my kitchen this early, I expect you're making me breakfast, hm?" Cle smirked and cracked a few more eggs into the skillet.
"Are ya making bacon too?"
"Make your own damn bacon." Cle let the eggs cook as he pulled a handful of tins from a lower cupboard.
"I bet the Miss would like some bacon. You should be more courteous, Cle." He set another skillet to heat and disappeared behind a door, emerging with thick slabs of marbled meat. They sizzled loudly as he laid them in the pan. Cle quickly grabbed the eggs off the stove and dished them onto two of the three plates I laid out. He gestured for me to go ahead while he retrieved a bowl and fixed up another dish.
It was no omelette, but it was extremely delicious.
Cle joined me at the small table with a mug of stale coffee and a bowl of hot cereal. Jeb dished crisp bacon on top of my eggs, and with a mischievous look, tossed a few pieces into Cle's bowl. Cle stared down at it with disdain.
"My grandpa fought you injuns out west, and I never once heard him speak of a redskin who didn't eat meat," Jeb snorted. "You won't even touch these eggs, which are mighty tasty, by the way."
"I can't stomach it. You want me to puke all over your floor? Cause I can do that." Cle fished the bacon out of his bowl. "You keep eating all that greasy food, and you're going to have a heart attack someday, Jeb."
"I'm forty-nine and that's my prerogative. But if you don't get yourself together, you won't make it to thirty. Hell, you'll hardly make it to twenty-five."
I raised a curious eyebrow and Cle picked at his food. True, it wasn't any of my business. But not much was. Cle was quick, however, and asked me about my breakfast before I could open my big mouth. "It really is tasty. Where did you learn to cook?" Now that I was intrigued, I was not to be deterred.
Cle pushed away his cereal, half-finished. "My maman was a good cook. I was the oldest of three, so I helped her manage the household. When papa wasn't around she'd talk about starting a bakery, if the farm went under. Which in the end it did."
"I bet she runs a good bakery," I offered.
Cle shook his head. "I don't know where she is. I don't know where any of them are." He began to gather our empty plates and pile them in the sink. "Town was flooded out when they dammed the river, and there's no one left there to ask where they went."
"The farm literally went under."
"Whole thing's underwater. It's a big lake now" He filled the sink but made no move to wash the dishes. "I've asked around, tried to contact a few people." He shrugged, unsure or unwilling to say more.
Jeb admonished him to clean up the mess, and Cle complied without protest, seemingly eager for a mindless distraction. Jeb turned to me.
"He's a good kid, despite all the time he spent locked up. He means well. But he's a bit touched in the head from all that, you know." Jeb leaned across the table, lowering his voice. "I mean, he spent three years locked up in solitary. That's three years in a room by yourself." Jeb sat back, shaking his head. "But he means well. Harmless."
"I mean, really," Jeb raised his voice so Cle could hear. "Even for a half-breed, who ever heard of a veg-tarian Indian?"
Cle made a rude gesture and Jeb hooted.
I nearly kissed the mailman when he delivered my check the next morning, crumpled and waterstained. I promised to buy him a drink if he came back at the end of his route. He seemed warm to the idea, but he burst my bubble of joy when he pointed out that the bank would not be open until tomorrow. He offered to buy me a drink instead, but I had a feeling I wouldn't be around by the end of his shift.
I was right. The desk clerk I'd been working on all week was not on duty when I went to settle my bill, and the manager did not have the sympathy for my story I had hoped for. I pleaded, cursed, and brandished my uncashed paycheck at him to little effect. If I couldn't come up with the cash, I was to be out by noon.
I trudged indignantly through the lobby and nearly plowed into Cle as I pushed up the stairs. He was wrapped in a large traveling coat, an overstuffed pack, and a restless demeanor.
"Are you leaving?" I asked as I made room for him to pass.
"It's about that time," he replied. I asked him where he was heading, and he said it depended which train rolled up next. On cue, the building shook as a train rumbled toward the station. "Looks like I'm going East," he grinned with a twinge of hope that seemed uneasy on his face. He waved and headed across the lobby.
"Wait, Cle," I ran after him, spurred on by a desperate impulse. "Do you have enough to buy two tickets?" I showed off my paycheck and promised to repay him in full, plus a little extra for the trouble, by Monday morning.
"I wasn't going to buy a ticket," he began. But he examined me, and then his billfold. "How quickly can you pack?"
"Forget this train. We'll catch the next one." I rushed back up the stairs, calling behind me. "Let's go West."
The worst morning is in a small inn in St. George. I wake covered in blood with my guts falling out of my side. I stumble towards the bathroom and grab handfuls of towels to try to stop the bleeding, but they don't help. I feel myself shaking. I feel the carpet squish warmly under my feet. I feel the sick familiarity of dying.
Nelly sits up in bed and asks me foggily what's going on. Red sputum dribbles down my chin as I gurgle that my guts are falling out. Thick, bloody spit clogging my throat, choking me. It's disgusting. Nel doesn't look too concerned.
"Cle, your guts aren't falling out," she rolls out of bed and joins me at the sink. In her hands the towels come away clean, revealing no guts, no gore, no blood. Snot and tears are smeared across my face, but the rest of my innards are safe inside my body. I want to vomit, but I'm still afraid of what might come up, so I sit on the carpet beside Nelly until it all passes.
The best morning, I wake to late spring sunshine, leaves rustling overhead, the river nudging the stern of our boat. Nelly is curled up beside me, hogging the blankets. It still takes me a long time to figure out where I am or why I'm there, but I don't really care. It is beautiful and peaceful, and nothing else really matters.
My days at the Paper Street Hotel pass in a blur of forced insomnia. I try to keep busy in the kitchen, or listen to Lonnie complain about her rude clients, but slowly sleep creeps up on me. It grabs me by the nape of my neck and pulls my head below the water. I can't breathe. I can't move. I am drowning below consciousness.
This is the dream. I am lying in the prison graveyard, a warm rain wetting my face and running into my eyes. The gravedigger leans on his shovel, flicks a cigarette into the shallow grave. He tries to read the headstone, but stumbles over my last name. No one can pronounce it. I probably don't say it right anymore.
Death leans over me, grinning. Or seems to grin. Her face is just a bleached-out jawbone; the smile is perpetual. The rain passing through her shroud is cold as it drips down my throat. In a dry rattle she asks how I've been since we last met, numbering the days. She is very precise. I can't answer.
She places a bony hand on my chest. She is missing bones in her wrist and a few of her fingers. My lungs slowly collapse under their weight. My breath rattles as it leaves, and with it goes my fear, my resistance. When I am empty her hand pushes further into my chest and wraps around my heart, holding tight until it stops beating. I am swallowed up by an endless relief.
When I awaken, I feel the heaviness of my body, the strain and the pull of everything, and for a sickening moment I wish that the dream was real. This is what scares me most. My own mind is trying to make me give up everything I've fought to survive.
That's why I can't let myself sleep.
"You have to sleep," I insisted. "You're going to keel over and die if you don't ever sleep."
"I can't. Please, just help me stay awake."
Cle looked down at his hands, white-knuckled and clenched tightly around an angular buckle on his pack. Its edges dug into his palm, but he didn't seem to notice. I asked what he was so afraid of.
His hands gripped tighter. "What if I don't wake up? What if I do wake up and I'm back in that cell? What if this is all just a final dream and I'm already--"
"Cle." I looked at him straight. "You're working yourself up."
He returned my look with irritation. "I'm not," he replied, becoming agitated. "I'm really not."
A silence passed between us. I remembered Jeb's insistence that Cle was just a harmless kid. For a moment, I wasn't so sure.
"Give me your hand before you tear a hole in your skin." I massaged out the hot red mark with my thumbs, feeling his pulse race under his skin. "Are you going to be okay?"
He watched my hands work. "I'm just... really tired."
I let out a short laughed, my unease quieting. "I have no doubt of that. So listen. Go to sleep." I squeezed his hand between mine. "You're riding on a train with a pretty lady you met at a crappy old hotel. And that's exactly where you'll be when you wake up."
I sleep for twelve hours on the train leaving Lewisville. There are delays on the tracks and bad food and boredom and I sleep through it all. I dream that I'm a skeleton. The gravedigger leans on his shovel, gesturing me towards my grave. I refuse. He laughs and begins to push dirt back into the hole.
Go rest, he says.
For the rest of my sleep, I dream of nothing.
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