Chapter One:  The forgotten order of things

         This is what I remember. But someone else could say, “I know that place, and you’ve got the names all wrong.”

         I’d have to tell them that they’re mistaken. In any case, I don’t remember them being there.

         They might answer, “The doorway was on the left. That woman was a blonde.”

         I’d have to suggest that they were standing at a different angle, and the lighting was not as good.

         This all happened before mobsters replaced cowboys at the movies, and long before government Indians and stock market brokers took over the business of gambling. I was a nobody then, the same as I am now, only then I was a nobody with promise. The unsecured credit of my youth once opened doors which have since been securely locked.

         Reflecting on that time, I am often aware of the forgotten order of things. We all tend to place remembered matters in a sequence of importance determined by the lives we are presently living, and too easily forget the value of things we once held so dear. We judge our past selves by the logic of the present, as if we might have foreseen the unfolding of things we could not possibly have known in advance.

         My favorite job through college and for some years afterward was the night clerk shift at a hotel because it left me time to study during the day, and to write the things I write, and free of too much supervision. The money never mattered. I always made twice as much waiting tables, but then I’d come home in a sweat and a busted mood, having dealt with the human race at their most demanding and least forgiving, and without the heart to set down a noun and verb that agreed to the same sentence.

         The best hotel job I ever had was at the old Dartmouth, on Copley Square in Boston. For many reasons. For one, it was close to the Boston Public Library, and I spent much of my free time there in the reading room. Another was the age of the place. The newer hotels are all about efficiency and cost-effective use of space, but the grand corridors and wide lobbies of the old Dartmouth still whispered of the splendid circumstance and the pomp of royalty. The old hotels were once made to be a safe haven and solace for travelers too far from home. The public spaces within could be lined with small shops offering the necessary services of an age when men wore hats, shoes were shined, and women had to be pleased with gifts before they would succumb to the ardor of lovers. Even during my own time there, the Dartmouth still had the usual airline ticket office, travel agency, newsstand, florist, barber shop, and a smoke shop that perfumed the north exit enough to be fragrant late into the night, hours after it was closed. This was like working in a self-contained village of a sort. But the main reason I remember the old Dartmouth so well now is because of a few of the people I got to know there.

         Times change. Nothing remains the same. It’s the sort of wisdom that’s always been free of charge and readily available at any corner.  In any event, it seems we only listen to the advice we pay for, with blood or money. The more we pay, the harder we listen.

         I always tried to listen on the cheap. But then, I guess, I’m easily distracted.

        Change to the Dartmouth since its heyday has been entirely of the negative kind. My theory is that there was one ultimate moment, about 1930 or so, when that hotel, as well as the larger world, suffered a breakdown, a final moral bankruptcy, a loss of courage, and of verve. This was not just a matter of stock markets and economic decline. This was empyrean. A soul was lost.

         Of course, the old Dartmouth Hotel has changed even more since my time there in 1972; more than could be hidden by just another coat of cheap gold paint on the rococo filigree. For one thing, they ripped out the Carousel Room a few years after I left, because the aging mechanism beneath the turning floor at the center had overheated and caused a fire, and there was no one left to fix it. But once upon a time, you could sit in a single spot beyond the wheel of the inner floor and watch a lounge act from every possible angle in the space of half an hour as the center of the room and the small stage there drifted by. This was not so kind to the over-ripe acts that often played that venue, but the constant movement made the place seem busy even on slow nights.

         As it was, the piano bar at the middle was usually stocked with women, young and otherwise, each visibly pleased to be on revolving display, and often attended by anxious middle-aged men wondering if someone might know them. And during those years, on most nights after ten o’clock, anyone entering the main door, by the maitre d’ stand, might notice the dapper figure of Dom Benedict sitting at his table in a far corner, beyond the drift of the floor. From there Dom maintained a steady angle on anyone coming in, as well as a revolving world that seemed somehow especially his.

         At the time the Dartmouth was already outdated by the latest standards; a slightly shabby warren of wide halls which suddenly narrowed to make room for the newer conveniences of soda and snack machines, large rooms with lowered ceilings to hide the ductwork of modern air-conditioning and additional piping, and bathrooms with vaulted heights that echoed more unfortunate sounds. There were luxurious suites which had been divided into multiple singles, and singles with king-sized beds that required strategy for the opening of doors.

         Not all the elevators went to every floor. The balcony over the lobby could only be reached from the level above because the grand staircase of olden days, where debutants and beauty queens once descended as from the deck of the Mayflower had been removed to make room for a breakfast cafe. Elaborate plaster ceiling medallions could be seen truncated by the upper reaches of odd walls installed to create spaces for past demands already long forgotten and now reused for other purposes. Fire regulations dictated exits, but these often lead to hallways and then to other spaces connecting with more hallways. Few were aware, for instance, that the heavy silk and velvet curtain behind Mr. Benedict’s table in the Carousel Room covered a service door, an exit he used discreetly to come and go. I knew this because I was habitually curious and spent my breaks away from the front desk exploring whatever nooks I could find.

         When new, in 1912, the Dartmouth was the ‘modern’ hotel of an opulent Edwardian age (specifically not the rougher manliness of Teddy Roosevelt), and the architects had allowed for an elaborate floor plan offering the greatest potential to the costumed whims of that moment. Most inner walls were not meant for support. The bones of the massive steel girders that made the building among the newest of its kind, spanned ten yards at a stride, and in those early days, lesser wall divides were moved from year to year, like mere partitions, allowing displays on the main floor for the latest in automobiles or the hosting of the kind of political conventions which had once made Boston the ‘Hub.’ But by the time I came along, all this had declined to the more humdrum gatherings around school graduations and the annual comings of the Shriners or the Knights of Columbus.

With Boston’s economic decline after the war, most of those once inner walls had been left in place for decades. Still, small doors could be found from one space to the next at odd places and on several occasions, upon opening one or another of those, I witnessed things I have not forgotten.

         The duties of a night-clerk were well proscribed: checking in late-comers, turning away those without reservations who did not appear trustworthy (most), taking calls directly from rooms when guests needed information, or help, ringing the bellmen to hoist bags, delivering ice, passing disputed bills over to the night bookkeeper, watching out for the pimps and prostitutes who were themselves keeping an eye on potential business, and calling the hotel security in times of emergency. All of this might absorb two or three of the eight hours of duty I was salaried for between 10:30 pm and 6:30 am. The rest of the shift was supposed to have been spent with hands folded on the gray and pink of the Italian marble counter, eyes ever watchful for the wants of needy patrons. I usually spent this quiet time reading paperback novels opened out of view on a nook of shelf below the room chart, or otherwise kept hidden, the covers splayed discretely beneath the reservation board.

         My previous hotel job in Brattleboro, Vermont had required me to make the wake-up calls as well. At the Dartmouth, this chore was handled by a small woman named Ellen whom we seldom actually saw except when she was coming in to work, or leaving, but whose voice was a common connective thread to us all. The old switchboards, long outmoded and already automated, or by-passed completely by direct dialing, remained in a sort of hulking majesty of Bakelite and brass, their once proud technology massively spanning a narrow room in the basement, which was immediately below the front desk. Ellen spent her shift there in one corner of that space, ensconced before a newer console of small black switches that was hardly bigger than an office desk, Where previously four women had once chattered busily as they plugged and unplugged a morass of short copper-tipped cords in an oddly biological game, now it was just Ellen—which is not to emphasize the ‘just.’

         Ellen was my constant source of encyclopedic data and the untested depths of daily trivia. She did the New York Times crossword puzzle each night without reference. In pen. Her words were shaped by the generous and motherly concern of a woman who never had the family of her own she had wished for, and by the lush turns of the Santee River in South Carolina where she was born. Ellen was the first to know my name the day I came to work at the Dartmouth, and the last to say goodbye the day I left.

         I was not a particularly good night clerk. But I persisted. I can become very absorbed in a good book, and on many occasions, I was rudely disturbed by a paying customer who had given me ample opportunity to finish whatever sentence or paragraph I was engaged with. An unfair irritableness on my part was magnified by the inevitable coincidence between a major plot turn in the story and the length of time necessary to satisfy the needs of the hotel guest.

         In my own defense, I had fallen into bad habits while still in college and working at the previous hotel, where I had learned more in those hours after dark—things I still remember better—than I had from any of the textbook knowledge I acquired during the day. At that previous place I was supposed to ignore certain comings and goings to avoid conflict with the laws of the State of Vermont, which prohibited things like prostitution, or the high stakes poker games held weekly in the Presidential suite. I had learned then, at an early age, that such laws were selectively enforced, and those who made them often broke them. A lowly desk clerk could be called to testify in divorce proceedings or worse, things that I had no wish to be part of.

         In addition to that, being blind without my glasses—the very reason the United States Army had no interest in my hormonally overheated carcass after I finished school—meant I always had a ready excuse for what I did not see. To some degree then, reading on the job was my way of keeping my head down. Dom Benedict had certainly warned me about that more than once.

         Dom had strict and simple advice, as free as the street corner variety, but more precise. ‘Keep your nose clean. Keep your hands out of your pockets. Keep your head down.’ He said this during our first meeting, early one morning, in the empty main dining room where I was eating my sandwich at a bare service table in the half-dark.

         At first, I thought he might be the manager, Mr. Henry, whom I had yet to meet even though he lived in the hotel. Dom didn’t correct my misconception and the next evening I embarrassed myself by assuming the actual Mr. Henry was a guest who had taken a wrong door. The story of this encounter was later much repeated as local humor in our small circle.

         Dom was a tall man, lanky in the way of people who are always at ease. His severe appearance–thin mustache, hair combed straight back, and always wearing an expensive dark blue suit over a cream white shirt cuff-linked just inside the cuff—was at odds with that posture. He looked more than a little like Howard Hughes, and that fact I afterward learned was not accidental. He had met Hughes in his early days and admired him enormously. But Dom never flew in airplanes because of a nasty experience as a soldier. He did like trains, however, and he had some good stories to tell about those.

         On that first meeting, the glow of only one chandelier at the center of the high ceiling in the empty dining room added a colorless haze to the darkened elegance. Curving rows of tables were pre-set for the next day, with napkins twisted into flares of white against beige tablecloths and silverware glinting with orderly traces of the diminished light. Dom had appeared out of nowhere from a back corner as I absent-mindedly gazed over the open space in some reverie or another. His dark figure approached as if intending to speak to me and was something of a shock, in that I had yet to discover the narrow passage that separated the Carousel Room from the main dining area. That passage was intended as a kind of buffer against the sounds of the nightclub but was used as well for extra chairs and assorted furniture, and for staff assignations.

         His first words to me were, “What are you eating?” The low rumble of his voice indicated a serious interest despite the subject matter.

         I answered, “A sandwich,” suddenly unable to swallow.

         The shadows gave the reaction on his face a look of exaggerated importance concerning this incidental addition to the sum total of human knowledge.

         He said, “I could smell the peanut butter from the next room,” but in a tone as if he found this amusing. “It’s good for you, you know. Almost the only thing I ate until I went into the Marines.”

         I swallowed and added, “And it’s cheap.”

         That brought a thoughtful nod. “And it’s cheap. But don’t get it on a table cloth.”

         I felt somehow caught in a wrongful act. “Yes, sir. Paul said I could sit in here if I wanted.”

         He considered this added morsel of fact as if armies might be called into action for the difference. “If Paul said so, it’s ok,” and then added, “You started this week?”

         “Yes sir. Yesterday.”

         He paused thoughtfully again. With the partially lit chandelier behind him, his shadow was imposing. I had no knowledge yet of the hard blue in the eyes that studied me.

         “You like the place so far?”

         An easy question to answer. “I like old hotels. Things are always going on.”

         With his left hand he pulled a cigarette from a pack I could not see inside his jacket pocket and with his right hand he lit the end with a square Zippo lighter that appeared as if by a magic trick in his palm. The metallic chirp accented the glint of gold plate.

         “That’s true. Something is always going on. But you have to remember to keep your nose clean, keep your hands out of your pockets, and keep your head down.”

         I answered, “Yes, sir,”

         Paul Lazlo, my authority for eating ‘lunch’ there in the closed dining room rather than the dank basement enclosure known as the ’employee lounge,’ was a thin fellow too, but his ill-fitting black uniform gapped in odd places, and his bow tie floated at the bottom of a long neck. Paul was always in a hurry; coming to the front desk twice each night, once from the main dining room after it stopped serving at nine, and then again after the Carousel Room closed its doors at one. As Headwaiter, he was usually loaded with small bills and loose change from tips and given to fast conversation as he stacked his dollars and quarters in neat piles before our cashier, Francesca. She would exchange it all for twenties, and then he would be gone.

         That night, on first meeting Dom, and looking for a topic as he stood there before me, I wondered if I had consulted the wrong authority.

         “Paul was right about me eating in here, wasn’t he? I know he’s just a waiter–“

         Mr. Benedict pulled a chair from the closest table and sat down with an ashtray cradled in the palm of his left hand.

         “Whatever Paul says is usually right. Don’t worry about it.”

         I offered my excuse nonetheless, “The staff room downstairs has an odd smell.”

         He gave the matter a moment of grave consideration before answering.

         “Nobody eats in that place. It stinks.”

         That seemed definitive. But I was surprised he had bothered to sit down, and even more unsure of myself. Remember, I still thought he was the hotel manager.

         Dom began to ask questions, strung one to the next, never seeking explanations for any odd answers I gave. I was assuming that the peculiar shapes and edges of my life were not interesting enough to pursue. Later I came to understand his method of inquiry. He liked puzzles and wanted all the pieces necessary on the table before he started to fit things together. Not that my own puzzle would hold any degree of difficulty.

         I had not had a real interview when I applied for the job. I filled out the employment form and offered my references and was told when to report for duty and where to find a uniform, all within an hour. I assumed, correctly as it turned out, that someone had just quit without warning and there was a sudden slot to fill in a position already understaffed. Now, I wrongly guessed that Dom’s inquiries were to make up for that omission.

         We talked for too long that first time and I was late getting back to the desk and had to face the scowl of Mr. Wiggin, the night bookkeeper and undesignated authority overall. He had filled in at the front desk during my absence.

         That little man, given to short declarative sentences and few idle questions, spoke with an audible huff to his voice, “I’ve got better things to do.” The one constant with him was his dissatisfactions. The shine off his bald head flashed light into eyes still accustomed to the darkness of the dining room and made me wince as if in response to the words.

         I thought that keeping my hands out of my pockets was related to some perverted pleasure all Catholics feared and obeyed this rule happily. I never had much of a problem with colds, and never thought a lot about my nose in any case. But the first time I fully understood about keeping my head down was on a hot night in June, a couple of weeks after I had started the job.

         I was in the middle of Nevil Shute’s novel, Round the Bend, and was unaware of anything unusual until Francesca’s tray hit the floor on the other side of the half-wall partition that separated my space from her’s. The bounce of quarters and dimes on the marble floor was enough to awaken even my already absorbed consciousness to the reality of the moment. Startled, I lunged across the oak divide to see if I could help and saw in intimate detail the hard lines and sculptured dark metal beauty of a short-barreled .45 caliber Colt automatic. I can swear to this day that I actually read the words ‘Patented April 20, 1897,’ before I realized what it was. Then I pulled my head back as quickly as it had arrived and just ahead of a concussive wallop that deafened both of my ears to Francesca’s simultaneous soprano scream.

         Unfortunately, my glasses had continued in the original direction, weighted like a plumb bob by the heavy glass lenses. I saw little else afterward with less than a blur. I did hear the follow-up curse of the robber, who shot into the air again for no other apparent purpose than to keep other heads down as well, and I only knew he had fully retreated by the unmistakable crash of broken glass as it shattered against the floor in the west vestibule when he shot his weapon a third time in frustrated anger as he struggled, his other hand encumbered by his loot, to get that door open during his escape.

         Francesca was huddled in the corner of her booth beneath the marble overhang of the counter, and with my reappearance over the divide she shrugged almost nonchalantly with the words, “What are you gonna to do?”

Which is a phrase she often used and a question I could not answer honestly and thus remained silent. I smiled instead.

         This was a stupid reflex. My tongue has always been in conflict with my brain and speaking too quickly was often an embarrassment of stuttering and mangled grammar that safely hid the etymology and syntax of my purpose. I had worked to avoid this at all costs ever since the dawn of my adolescence, adopting a quick smile from my father’s number one rule of life. ‘Don’t speak unless you have something to say.’ A commandment I broke most often. forcing him to correctly assuming my verbal mutilations to be the result of an untidy mind, or worse. I had long since revised his wisdom to an easier, ‘Don’t speak when you can raise an eyebrow, or nod instead, or best of all, smile.’ My revision of rules is often more wordy than the original.

         Francesca took this to be some kind of quiet bravery, while I was marveling at her own apparent calm. Even in that blurred haze, I was aware of her eyes.

         Mr. Wiggin, the bookkeeper, poked the slick pink bowl of his head over the half door that closed the cashier’s booth off from the back office.

         “What did he get?”

         His tinny monotone sliced through whatever it was that joined the air between Francesca’s eyes and my own.

         She answered, “Whatever he wanted,” as she reached upward for my hand. I pulled her up to her feet, lucky to have the divide to brace my effort. Her hand was firm, and warm. The sensation of her sudden touch was, I think, a greater shock than the explosion of the gun that still rang in my ears.

         Quarters and dimes gleamed against the darker marble, surrounding Francesca’s bare legs, but all paper bills were missing.

         I helpfully reported, “All the cash is gone.”

         By this time a crowd was gathering from one corner or another. Francesca had discovered my glasses in the folds of her dress and handed them up to me as she stood.

         She said, “You were very brave.”

         There was no polite smile given with those words. She seemed completely serious, and I was not about to deny her mistake. I searched my repertoire for a response. Smiling would not do, nor a nod. I attempted a skeptical raising of one eyebrow. My mind just then was possessed of that singular joy that the severely myopic feel when they discover that their glasses have not been lost or destroyed. An acute vision of the restored world around me combined with the lingering sensation of her hand, which I had reluctantly released when she was standing.

         Victor, the night bellman stood close at the outer edge of the counter and stared at me blank-faced through his own thick lenses. He said nothing. He was as far-sighted as I was near-sighted, and his eyes were magnified into a steady blank surprise. He had obviously moved quickly to the sounds from some far corner, and one of his hearing aids protruded oddly from the side of his head like a knob.

         I said, “We’re okay.” He blinked but did not move. I was not yet capable of giving him a larger explanation of what had happened.

         Within minutes two police officers entered from a side door directly opposite to the one where the remains of a glass display glittered across the floor. Ken, the hotel security guard, simultaneously appeared from the basement laundry room where he had heard nothing over the chant of the machines and his ongoing flirtations with the housekeeping service staff.

         Questions were asked. More questions. I gave my name out twice to different officers and twice again to reporters from the Herald-American and the Globe. I had little to report and said so. My eyes had never focused on the robber’s face, only the gun. Francesca repeatedly confessed that her mind had gone blank with the shock and remembered nothing other than a few broad details. Photographs were taken. An unblinking eye of dark had appeared in the cream white trim of the wall above and behind me, where layers of paint in different colors were chipped away like gaudy make-up revealing the shine of a thin gold ring of oak beneath. This was examined, but the bullet not immediately found. From the West vestibule, I could hear Greg, the night janitor, pushing broken glass across the floor in front of a wide broom. Throughout this, half a dozen of the women who worked in housekeeping watched in a kind of gallery formation from the north end of the lobby, the monotony of folding towels and sheets thankfully interrupted. Ken thoughtfully re-reported the known facts in Spanish before they retreated.

         Several guests arrived during the aftermath of the initial commotion, unaware of the quaking of the earth which had just passed and still shivered inside me. None seemed terribly concerned about much more than finding their rooms and getting to sleep. Late customers were usually like that, and I appreciated them for it.

         With an uncanny sense that the hubbub had passed, Ellen called from her narrow room below. Her voice was firm with instruction. “Don’t you ever say ‘no’ to a man with a gun. Do you hear me? Money has no value in the grave. The ground is full of young men who thought they would live forever.”

         I said, “Yes, ma’am.”

         Quiet settled. Except for the chatter of Francesca’s register as she ran a report to establish the extent of the losses, I was temporarily deaf to the usual echoes of distant halls. My ears still rang like they once did after a large firecracker had exploded in my hand when I was a kid. I opened my paperback book again and stared at the page hoping to focus enough to read. My mind kept rewinding a recording of Francesca’s words, ‘You were very brave.’ I had never before heard words like that spoken in my direction. Behind me I caught an occasional louder buzz of voices in the back office, as the story of the evening event was told over again in the high-pitched tones of Mr. Wiggin.

         And then I was caught off guard by the approach of someone else.

         “You could have gotten your head down a little sooner.”

         Dom Benedict stood a few feet out from the counter, his blue suit nearly black even in the better light of the lobby. I noticed he had one hand tucked into a side pocket of the buttoned jacket–perhaps an infraction of the rules–and thought immediately that I would look foolish if I pocketed one hand in the same manner, even though he looked very European that way.

         I smiled and added confirmation. “Yeah. I guess.”

         He pulled a lone cigarette from the pocket. I wished I could ask for a cigarette just then, but smoking was not allowed on the job. A renewed thought of the gun suddenly took the strength from my legs, and I sat back down on my stool.

         He said, “The slug missed your right eyebrow by the width of a finger. You’ve got powder burns.”

         I did. I had not realized what the itching on my forehead was and assumed I had acquired a mosquito bite.

         Francesca, stopping the steady sequence of her fingers on the keys of the register, and having heard Mr. Benedict’s words, said, “Let me see,” as she abruptly leaned across the partition. It was the first time I ever saw Dom Benedict flinch. I turned toward Francesca to see the source of his discomfort and faced a display of her natural endowments beneath the gape of her dress that is still vivid in my mind.

         I had to close my eyes.

         Admittedly, this is not the most intelligent thing for a man to do when a woman of such blessings leans toward you, but it was the best thing for me to do at that moment.

         She fingered the skin around my right temple and then ran her hand back through my hair as if to put it in place. I could smell licorice.

         I managed a complaint. “It itches a little.”

         The sensation of her fingers had interrupted my breathing.

         “It feels rough,” she said. “Like you have beard stubble there.”

         Dom’s Zippo chirped and with the cigarette caught at the corner of his lips, he said, “Burns. They’ll go away unless they’re under the skin. Those you’ll keep. They’ll look like this.” He undid a gold cuff link, pushed up both the cuff of his jacket and his shirt in one motion, and extended the pale under-part of his left forearm. It was speckled with a grey-black splatter tattoo.

         I said smartly, “How did you get that?” Assuming it would be a war story like those my uncles might tell.

         He answered quickly, “Sawed-off shotgun. It itched for weeks,” before pulling the sleeve down again.

         One eye was squinted against the smoke from his cigarette, but the blue of the other seemed to study me as he turned the clasp of this cuff link into the starched white cloth and straightened his jacket.

         Francesca brushed the tips of her fingers lightly across my skin. “I don’t think this will be as bad as that,” she said.

         I was about to object to her assessment, thinking it would make her use her fingers for yet another examination, but Mr. Benedict spoke first.

         “No. I don’t think it will.”

         I smiled instead.

         Mr. Wiggin leaned over the half-door behind Francesca and seemed to be making an assessment of the now clean floor before I saw that his eyes were a little too high and directed at Francesca’s backside.

         He finally spoke, “Francesca, did you finish running your register report?”

         The tininess of his voice had reached metallic purity.

         Francesca turned and handed him the looping paper tape from the register and he grunted with one last look at the hem of her dress and disappeared again.

         We were always supposed to avoid personal conversation at the desk, well aware that any transgression of this rule would be reported by Mr. Wiggin. But conversation with patrons was encouraged, and Dom Benedict was qualified in this regard.

         Dom turned to Francesca.

         “You’re ok?” His tone suggested that he already knew she was.

         “I suppose,” she shrugged. “What are you gonna do?”

         Then Mr. Benedict studied me once more, his face blank as he spoke.

         “It was a near thing. The guy was a head-case. That was obvious. Probably coke.”

         Francesca nodded and shrugged again.

         I answered him with some surprise. “I didn’t see–were you there? You saw it?”

         Dom looked me directly in the eye before he answered.

         “Did you see me there?”

         I said, “No.” A simple fact. I wondered from what corner he had observed the event and understood without bludgeoning my brain that he did not want it known he had seen anything at all. He was not about to be questioned by cops.

         He looked at me, shrugging, almost in an imitation of Francesca, and said, “Come on over during your break,” and then walked away toward the coffee shop.

         I had noticed the gathering of figures in the glass-walled enclosure of the closed cafe each night, with most of the lights turned off so that only the glare from the lobby illuminated the interior. It seemed part of some nightly convention and was not my business. I had questioned it once, early on and was told by Victor, the bellman, that it was “A prayer service.”

         I turned to Francesca and met her eyes immediately and tried to smile, but there was no smile on her broad face.

         She said, “Thanks,” her voice just above a whisper and out of Mr. Wiggin’s hearing.

         I asked, “For what?” wondering what I might have done.

         She looked deeply grim.

         “That guy was going to shoot me. I know it. If you hadn’t interrupted him, he would have shot me for dropping the tray. I could see it in his eyes.”

         I could see the gun again, reimagined multiple times already, and so close a smear of oil gave texture to a bit of my own reflection in the surface of the metal. I shook my head with the terrible thought, but I liked the look of what I was seeing in Francesca’s eyes just then and I did not want to say anything that might disturb her new awareness of my existence.

         For a little more than two weeks we had been working within a few feet of each other. I had tried to make small talk and been ignored or turned away. But I had admired the less subtle curves of her figure whenever opportunities allowed. She wore the white blouse and black dress required, but her dress had the flair of some esoteric pattern in the folds and was longer than usual, showing only her ankles. Her blouse billowed in pleats of starched cotton and the embroidery of flowers in white thread. I found out later she had done the needlework herself. It was her hobby.

         I had quickly noticed that she had little patience for small talk, and no interest in the everyday details of hotel life that so easily fascinated me. Her eyes were a few inches below mine and I guessed she was not quite six feet tall in her low heels. The very first night I had estimated that she might be two or three years older, just for the way she carried herself and the confidence she seemed to display when she spoke to customers. Her skin was olive more than tanned, and her hair was nearly black and extremely long. Twice, deep in the quiet of the night, I had watched as she undid her hair until it reached the floor from the stool she used in her booth, brushed it, braided it, and rolled it into a snake-like curl at the back of her head.

         In one conversation she admitted to being Sicilian, which I assumed by a turn in her voice was where she was born, and thus not completely Americanized in her ways. Another time she spoke Italian to a customer who was paying his bill. Later, I found out that she had been born in New York but had lived in Palermo for much of her childhood. I did not yet know that she had been married and divorced before I had even graduated from high school.

         In a sense, she was my immediate boss, having already worked at the Dartmouth herself for several months. I quickly deferred questions of hotel policy to her. She had asked me to get her coffee a few times from the closed cafe where Mr. Benedict now stood in the shadows. Several times I made room counts from my board to coordinate with her own records. Most of her shift was spent matching room bills and charges, and few other words were passed between us. Now, I decided it was probably best not to push this better acquaintance too far for the moment and turned back to my book once more. The steady male cadences of Nevil Shute were there dampened by the odd and husky tones of Francesca’s voice repeating “What are you gonna do?” inside my head.

         My shift was from 10:30 pm to 6:30 am. At 2 am Mr. Wiggin came out from the office with a folder of customer slips and tallied his report at my space against Francesca’s register, while I took my break–a little late on that night, but his face was stolid again with the routine.

         I entered the cafe with hesitation. The figure of Mr. Benedict was mostly hidden in the darkness beneath the copper hood that further shadowed the broad black iron griddle. Greg the janitor, and Ken, the security guard sat together on counter stools closer to the glass window, with plates of half-finished food in front of them.

         Later I learned that Mr. Benedict did not cook every night. Usually, he just drank a last cup of coffee and chatted with one person or another as they ate the lunch they had carried in. He often stayed until the baritone resonance of his voice had become nearly inaudible with fatigue and then disappeared without a word. His room on the second floor faced out to the west so that the morning sun would never wake him.

         Dom’s voice boomed from the shadows.

         “Our young hero has arrived. Eggs? Bacon? Toast?”

         I took the comment as a sort of manly sarcasm and tried to focus on his shadow before finding the red coal of his cigarette suspended in the dark. Standing uncertainly at the end of the counter, I wondered at what rules might apply here. This could not be an officially sanctioned venue of the hotel management. But just as certainly, I wanted to stay.

         I said, “Sure.” There was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a brown bag in my hand and I had planned to buy a can of coke at the machine on the second floor. The closed cafe was a far more hospitable place to eat than the darkened dining room. But I was slow to realize then that my first night in the cafe was an occasion. A small celebration. And that this was for me.

         After a moment of adjustment, I could see that Mr. Benedict handled the griddle like it was an old job. He spoke to me over his shoulder, the cigarette perched in his mouth, with the glowing end of it jittering in the dark.

         He said, “Sit down.”

         It was a small enough fraternity. It did not seem that I would be committing myself to any larger association.

         And so I did.