Randy, the general manager, and Agnes, the head of housekeeping, call Luis and me into the back office first thing Monday to figure out a plan for the armoires. The new ones will arrive on Wednesday morning, Randy says, but the truck to take the old ones away can’t make it until Thursday afternoon. He leans against the filing cabinet, a rim of grease at the collar of his shirt. Agnes, perched on the edge of the desk, taps a lip with a big-knuckled finger.
As the two of them strategise, Luis stares into his hands, chin lolling on the chest of a brown polyester shirt three sizes bigger than mine. And when Agnes decides that the two of us should hump four floors’ worth of oversized mock-rococo cabinets to the roof and cram them beneath the patio canopy, Luis ignores her, nods at Randy and says:
But in the elevator it’s a different story.
‘Goddamn it,’ he says, ‘have you seen those motherfuckers? They’re six feet tall and three wide. They’re two hundred fucking pounds.’ He drives a boot into the base of the panelled door; the elevator jolts on its cable. ‘Man, it wouldn’t take too much more to make me really hate this dump, you know? Why don’t they just bulldoze it all to hell and start again?’
‘It’s an institution,’ I tell him, but I’m distracted with my phone: no calls.
The hotel, according to Randy, dates back to the beginning of the last century. Its first customers were the owners of the lumberyards upriver, whose patronage paid for canopied beds and brick hearths tall enough to stand in, whose sons held lavish dinners throughout Prohibition behind the laundry room’s trick door. During the Second World War, naval officers billeted at the university marched down North King Street three times daily for meals in the tavern. And soon afterwards, travelling salesmen staged product demonstrations in their rooms until the yards all closed and there was no one left to sell to.
It was to the hotel’s restaurant that I took my parents for cobb salads and whiskey sours on the weekend of freshman orientation. My mother wore a purple sweater and waterproof eye make-up, my father a ludicrous white linen jacket and a wide smile. And it was there too that I took Ashley two years later for thick steaks and strong cocktails after exams I knew I’d failed. I held her hand tightly across the table, listened to her talk about our future. Her voice was high and she could hardly sit still. That was before our sex got angry, our conversations short.
Now, I’m awake most mornings before my alarm and staring at the plastic stars constellated on Luis’s living-room ceiling. I fold the Star Wars blanket marked with his childhood piss and work the coffee-maker that dominates the countertop in the kitchenette. Then we’re in the car, Luis slurping coffee from a travel mug and singing along to the country station or the oldies station. We pull into the parking lot and punch our time cards at the door. We nod hello to the cleaning ladies hollering down their phones and to the overnight room-service guys comparing tips. And then we’re in the elevator, on the floors, in the rooms, changing light bulbs or mopping tiles or rewiring the busted cable. Luis and I work well together. We are capable of talking about nothing to pass the time. But the major advantage of our kind of work is the opportunity it provides for silence.
The old armoires are cheap plywood boxes with particleboard backs and doors of imitation oak. I’ve gotten used to fielding complaints from guests about sticking drawers or misaligned hinges or splintered innards that shred cashmere sweaters to rags. They groan and wobble and threaten to split their joints as I lower them one by one on to the hand truck.
It’s off-peak season, and at this hour most of the guests are busy antiquing or day-tripping out to writers’ homes or the Shaker Village—but a few linger still to clear paths guiltily through piles of crumpled clothing or bed sheets or room service trays, one eye on the dresser where phones and other valuables lie exposed, the other on my scrawny shoulder blades or the strain that bulges my forearms.
‘It’s alright,’ we tell them. ‘We’ve got this.’
Luis steers the truck and I hold the armoires steady. We ride the elevator to the roof, where, this past summer, we used to sneak away for smokes and feel the sun dry the sweat from our backs. But now the air is as sharp as teeth and everything is the same iron grey as the sky. Luis and I collapse the patio chairs and unload the armoires beneath the canopy. I survey the space.
‘Will they all fit?’
He shrugs. ‘That’s not my problem.’
To look at him, you’d think Luis was strong. When we met on my first day, I looked up into his black little piggy eyes and fist of a mouth, then down at the neckless spread of him—and I was scared. But these past few months, since he’s taken me in and we’ve started to share a bathroom, I’ve seen the slushy hang of what I’d thought were biceps, the slabs of meat swinging from his chest, the slender legs.
By midmorning, he’s sweated through two shirts and needs to take a break every few minutes to catch his breath. It gets so bad that, after lunch, I fetch him a Gatorade from the vending machine and leave him wheezing in the stairwell. My hands are red and calloused, the fingers curled towards the palms; when I try to straighten them out, the tendons ache and moan like cables.
The only way to preserve the armoires’ joints is to get right under their tilting weight, and if I wedge the hand truck against a wall the work is just about doable alone. By four o’clock, I’ve moved nineteen to the roof and stacked them end to end. That’s almost half the job, and the rest will fit if we disassemble the last couple and lay them in pieces on top. While the sun fizzles behind the flat roof of the old brewery, Luis and I sit together by the stairwell door to smoke. My head is light, my lungs clean and burning. Luis flips through a porno he’s found stashed behind some paint cans, jabbing at airbrushed flesh with every turn of the page. Randy comes to check on us, tie loosened to give rolling room to a beefy neck.
‘That’s nice work,’ he says, and Luis is quick to tell him:
‘You know us, boss.’
My parents met Ashley a couple of times. My father liked her sundress and the way she touched his arm. He reckoned that her watch and her haircut meant she came from money. My mother never liked her. Not when Ashley and I invited the two of them for dinner to the studio apartment off campus we’d decided to share for sophomore year. And definitely not when I made the call nine months later to declare that I was neither going back to school nor coming home, but instead would stay on to work while Ashley finished studying.
After that, my mother and I didn’t speak for almost a month. My father called me Thursday evenings on his way back from after-work drunk bowling to tell me over and over that he didn’t agree with my decision but he respected it, that my student loans were absolutely my problem and that my mother would come around. Eventually, he brokered a truce, and now my mother and I talk on the phone every week or two. She’s stopped asking me to come home. She seldom asks about work. She never asks about Ashley. I haven’t told her we broke up.
After our shift, Luis and I head over to the Howling Owl, an off-brand Hooters by the railway tracks. He likes to sit at the belly of the horseshoe bar and pant as waitresses strut past gripping pitchers of weak beer. Me, I like the sports. The Owl has a bank of TVs near its copper ceiling that show everything from college football to ladies’ synchronised diving. I can lock into the athletes’ mechanical action, with Luis distracted and good company for it, and the crowd around us loud enough that I don’t have to think. The hours fly by.
The place is rocking to Steve Miller Band hits and Big 10 basketball. We order a pitcher, and Luis sets to jawing with some tattooed townie about last year’s hockey play-offs and about why he doesn’t vote. A bachelorette party slams tequilas at my elbow. The bride wears a brittle-looking veil and the maid of honor brandishes a gummy purple dildo. Our pitcher disappears before half-time. Luis orders a second, then a third, then a basket of wings and makes it known that tonight he’ll go for the title.
The record at the Owl on dollar wing night is fifty-one dollars, fifty-one wings. If you can beat that, your whole party eats and drinks for free, and they give you a T-shirt with a picture of an owl dripping buffalo sauce from its feathers, which Luis has been eyeing for months. He’s been in training, conditioning his stomach. Last week, he broke forty for the first time and tonight he’s feeling lucky.
He delves his hands into the carnage of the basket and pulls them out two-at-a-time. He closes his thick lips around nubs of orange flesh, sucks and gnaws and nibbles and draws out the clean, dark bone. The townie chants his name. The bachelorette party whoops and rubs his shoulders. But by thirty-seven, Luis’ eyes are glassy, his forehead is red and oily and he pushes the basket away, hiccupping, belching, beaten.
At last call, he persuades one of the waitresses to slip us a bottle of gin for cash in hand. He is too drunk to drive so I take the wheel and pilot us without thinking to our summer after-hours drinking place upriver—a picnic spot with a row of rimy tables and a canopy of overhanging trees that rattle their leafless branches. The night is black but for our headlights. The air smells of frost and skunk. I sit shivering on the fender and Luis sprawls out flat on the hood. The ticking engine warms us as we pass the bottle back and forth.
I take out my phone to call Ashley. She doesn’t answer. I leave a message.
‘You shouldn’t’ve done that,’ Luis says once I hang up. He is silent for a long time, lips twisted in disappointment. Eventually he says, ‘And you’ve been on my couch for long enough.’
He rolls off the hood and staggers to the riverbank. For a moment, I’m worried and half-excited that he’ll tumble over the edge but he steadies himself against a tree. I hear the slap of vomit on water, the shudder of dry heaves. Luis walks back, drawing a hand across his lips, and clambers into the car.
‘Just fix it with Ashley,’ he says. ‘Okay? You only get so many chances.’
His big head thuds against the bulkhead. I drive us home with the window open to air the stink of vomit. I hope for a deer or a raccoon to appear in my high beams, something warm and alive that I could fail to avoid. But nothing comes.
In the morning, a voicemail from Ashley awaits me. She, as far as I know, still gets up at 5 AM to read, and right now she’ll be on her way to her work-study at the gallery. How fine it was, she says, to hear from me, and behind her voice I can hear the weatherman forecast a blizzard on the TV I wired into our kitchen.
I work the coffee-maker, go out to smoke but keep walking, and find myself sometime later zipping my jacket over my uniform and jogging through an iron gateway at the university’s western end. At this hour, the campus is quiet: just some men from the phone company, an administrator type in a cherry-red Gore- Tex and a girl with an enormous backpack limping towards the library. Above me are the dorms, churchy grey stone piles with redbrick edging; and to the right is the concert auditorium, all swooping lines and hammered aluminium and vinyl posters of cellists. Before I flunked out I hardly ever went to class, but now I realise with a pang how long it’s been since I’ve learned anything. I’d like to know how something works, why something is the way it is.
‘Where the hell were you this morning?’ Luis says in the locker room. He is freshly showered and clean-shaven but with nicks in his tubby jaw.
I splash water on my face at the sink and smooth the hair at the nape of my neck.
‘I went for a walk,’ I tell him. ‘Ashley left a message.’
‘Oh.’ Luis checks his watch; we collect the hand truck and head for the elevators. ‘Man, I don’t expect she was too happy. I couldn’t believe it last night when you said what you said to her.’
‘Well, there’s no taking back any of it now.’
The doors open on a wobbly old guy wearing an Air Force cap and oxygen tubes. Luis pushes the lobby button for him and leads us down the hallway to our first room. I knock and we announce ourselves but are greeted only with silence. Luis swipes his master key in the lock and pushes open the door. The armoire waits by the window, heavy and immobile. Luis hunkers beside it. I spread my weight, square by body and put my shoulder hard into stubborn wood.
All morning I shove and heave and blat the things on to the truck or into the carpet. We wheel the armoires to the roof and position them in clean rows like dominos ready to fall. At lunch, we choke down plates of sodden calamari left over from a Chamber of Commerce meeting. Luis reaches into his mouth and pulls out a long strip of flesh, burnt and flayed by last night’s wings. I squirm in my seat, a firm nut of pain growing harder at the small of my back. Luis looks out the window at the lowering sky.
‘Snow coming on,’ he says.
After lunch, we switch over: I hunker to steady the truck or pin it down with a forearm when the armoire tries to tip it. Above me, more than my own weight in bargain basement cabinetry teeters and groans, and the only sign of Luis is the squeak of his hands on the veneer. In our last room, a corner joint gives way and a full side-slab shears off and falls towards me. I dive out of the way. The crash fills the room. Agnes, on one of her floor inspections, appears at the door and levels her grey eyes at us.
‘Sorry,’ Luis says, his cheeks flushed with hatred. ‘It slipped.’
‘Is that right?’ Agnes says, the point of her tongue on her lip.
‘That’s right,’ I tell her.
‘Well, don’t let it slip again.’
‘No, Agnes,’ Luis says.
We take the last armoire to the roof and break the rest of it apart. Luis kicks like a horse but I’m all frantic hands, tearing at joints and punching twisted laths and snapping pieces of particleboard until my nail beds sting with splinters. Small detonations rock my knuckles. An arc of pain crosses my wrist and streaks towards my elbow. A tack rakes the meat of my thumb, draws blood; I wipe it off. Above us, the wind has picked up and the canopy fills. It flutters empty and fills again.
After work, I leave Luis and go out walking. I pass the Chinese restaurant full of hollering upperclassmen, the yoghurt place and the cocktail bar where Randy goes to pretend he is somewhere else. The air reaches around my waist where my shirttail hangs and down the back of my neck where my jacket collar gapes; it numbs my lips and scrapes my throat and freezes my breath in fog.
The main road out of town has no crosswalk; I take the stone steps to an underpass lit with the flicker of a trashcan fire. Around it circle two men swaddled in overcoats and one bare-legged and shivering in a dirty hospital gown. The tunnel roof dribbles the condensation of human breath.
I climb out again at the warehouse district where, at a raw space on the corner, an exhibition opening leaks its chatter on to the sidewalk. The warehouse I’m aiming for is in the middle of the block; it is built of brown brick, single-storeyed but with lofted ceilings and tall plate windows in which a chill moon dangles. I get out of the street light and smoke some cigarettes, careful to cup my hand over the embers. In dark corners and in the coldest places, the snow has begun to stick.
When the lights go off, I cross the street to meet her as she closes up. I watch the delicate way she balances a fat bag on her shoulder and a box of files against her knee.
‘You could have come in,‘ she says
I offer a hand to help her down the steps but she doesn’t need it. Her ponytail has been severed, leaving a straight-edged bob. Her thin cheeks blanch from the chill and her small nose reddens; I want to cup the heat of my hands around her ears.
‘I got your message,’ I tell her. ‘I wanted to see you.’
‘To see you.’
‘Well,’ she says, ‘here I am.’
The party on the corner disgorges middle-aged couples. They wear camelhair coats and broad-brimmed hats, and clog the sidewalk to air-kiss. Ashley pops the trunk and I help her load her things. Her smell is old coffee and new perfume.
‘You look good,’ I say.
She crosses her arms and screws her lips into the goofy appraiser’s face she used to practise in front of the bathroom mirror.
‘You look . . .’ she says, ‘the same. In fact, I think you’re wearing the same exact outfit as the last time I saw you.’
‘It’s a uniform.’ I tug at the knees of my pants. ‘You’ve cut your hair.’
‘It was time for a change.’
‘It makes you look strong.’
She smiles. ‘That’s exactly what I wanted.’
‘And you’re happy?’ I say. ‘You’re doing good work?’
‘I am. I really am.’
I notice gobs of snow settled on my boot and kick them off.
‘That’s good, Ashley,’ I say. ‘That’s really good.’
For a short time in the eighties, when business was at its worst, the hotel opened its fourth floor to residential rentals. The people who took them were mostly short-term stays: professors with a one-semester contract or the better-off students between dorms for the summer months. There were some older people too who, once their children had left and their husbands or wives passed on, sold or rented their big Colonials to free up cash and to be in town.
Mrs Kimmel made the move in her late sixties and was surprised to live for another twenty-five years. She took out her disappointment at not dying on whomever she could, insisted that the cleaning staff was stealing from her and called Luis ‘Taco’ until he told her that was Mexican, then did her research and called him ‘Ajiaco’ instead. One of my first jobs at the hotel was cleaning out her suite after she died. There were just a few items of over-laundered clothing and some old room-service plates—no books, no photos of anyone. But it wasn’t the modesty or even the loneliness of her life that made an impression on me; it was how, throughout those years as her mind gave up, her body had persisted, kept moving air and blood.
I think of Mrs Kimmel as I sneak in through the staff entrance and take the stairs to the banqueting floor; as I peek into the restaurant and find it dark, cross the room and lie down behind the polished warming stations. I used to think that if my body had even half her kind of resilience, I would be okay. But as I lay my head on a folded tablecloth and curl beneath another one, I’m not so sure.
All night, the floorboards creak, branches scratch the windowpanes and the elevator cables whir. From time to time, the night porter comes and sits at the table by the big bay window to pick over stolen French fries. I hold my breath, stay perfectly still, and when he is gone I take out my phone to watch a short video I recorded a little over a year ago before everything went to hell. In it, Ashley stands in our kitchen swamped in one of my sweatshirts. She is cooking to The Supremes, her small knees bouncing. She spoons something red and steaming from a pot and offers it to the camera.
I wake before the breakfast service and sneak back out the staff entrance. Overnight, the snow has come on strong and now it lies in deep drifts over the parking lot. I wade downtown and back for coffee and sit with it in the locker room until Luis comes in looking rumpled. He takes his coffee without a word and leads us to the lobby to await the new armoires’ arrival. Outside, city ploughs struggle to clear and salt the way.
The truck rounds the corner and skids to a halt at the forecourt. Its tires crunch and its lights blink as Luis backs it in to the goods entrance. The deliverymen, Baptiste and Kenny, have an invoice for Agnes to sign.
‘This is a nice hotel,’ says Baptiste, whose sinewy arms are bare even in this weather.
‘Real nice,’ Kenny says and whistles through a gap in his teeth.
The new armoires are built of marbled walnut and intricately carved, with brass inlays and smooth-running drawers and recessed rails for hangers. They are heavier than the old ones and their joints are more secure. Agnes has arranged for the deliverymen to stick around and help us move them to the rooms. Luis pairs off with Baptiste, and I take Kenny to the service elevator. I show him how to lock it off, how to knock politely and announce ourselves firmly at a guest room door.
In the empty rooms, Kenny roams about to eye the coffee maker and the trouser press, the shoes paired on the floor and the clothing draped on armchairs. In the occupied rooms he sticks close, follows my lead. We meet a father who doesn’t break from his phone and two kids who stand dangerously close to watch us work. We meet a woman in running shorts and a varsity T-shirt, dark hair wet from the shower making her look more naked than if she wore nothing at all.
‘Thanks boys,’ she says as we wrestle the new armoire into its alcove, although she is no older than me and is most likely younger than Kenny.
‘You’re welcome ma’am,’ Kenny says, eyes on his shoes, hands by his sides.
We work through lunch and long into the evening. And once the new armoires have all been put in place, Agnes gives Baptiste and Kenny her best directions back to the highway, and Randy, Luis and I take the elevator to the roof to think over how we’ll dispose of the old armoires tomorrow. As we rise, I hope that the canopy legs have snapped overnight from the weight of snow. I picture half a foot fitted to the old armoires perfectly, hugging the shapes of the broken and the whole alike. But when the doors open, I see that all is as we left it. The canopy sags, its legs buckle and bend—but it holds strong yet. And beneath it, the armoires wait, clean and cold to the touch. Randy takes a broom from the stairwell and jabs it into the canopy’s belly. Hunks of snow fly skyward and break apart and float in dust to the street below.
I feel as though I’ve come through something, though not completely and not unchanged.
There will be no fresh starts for me, I realise. But there will be starts.