At some curse, or some speed, I pulled the door wide and almost tumbled into the elevator, crumbling up a small lady with a cane. I righted myself soberly, tossing off the indifference I truly felt with a fake smile that I did genuinely believe might have been worth a thousand dollars if not for the terror of the shock of the end of life's lessons that had weighed heavily on the sagging skins of this terrible old birdlike little lady. She gasped and swung the cane at me, pricking my shins like a lithe little thorny branch in the wind. I was momentarily astounded at the look on her face, which told awkwardly and so assuredly of mistrust and misgivings in spectacular abundance, and then I smirked, ready, so completely ready, to just let go and give her the hardest punch I could muster, right in the mouth. She had no right to hit me with her cane, I reasoned; crazy or old or whatever, she simply hadn't the right to inflict this upon me.
But the urge to strike her was only a passing fancy, as most violence surely is, and I smirked again as she huffed and pressed the same button for the ground floor once and again and over and over. Like singing along to a pleasant old tune drifting out across the room from a small transistor radio, I hummed along to her angry sighs and bobbed my head, entirely unsure about myself but somehow properly composed nevertheless.
When we hit the ground floor and the elevator began to settle, she filled up the doorway of the elevator with her spindly little bone-body and pressed the cane length-wise into the frame like she were expecting a tide of attackers once the door finally opened. But she wasn't meaning to prevent any such entrance. It was my exiting before her that she guarded the doorway against. The rage in me felt hotter than the awful need to let it slide. And so I narrowed my eyes toward the back of her witchy scarecrow head.
The sheer nerve of this son of a bitch old little mummy, I thought.
I could have struck her in the back of the head. Almost - I did feel the fucking urge - I almost spoke into the back of her wiry gray head, "Are you a widow? Are you lonely now that your husband has left you for a much better place than in your old, fractured arms? You are alone, old lady. Alone."
But of course she was. Old fucks like this always were, weren't they? Widows, lonesome crazy widows. Of course they were.
But I let the bell sound, and I stood back while she carried her fragile dusty body out into the lobby of the hotel. And she sure did shuffle slowly. If I doubted for a second the intention in that aged, crippled march, then I was a fool when she turned her head and sneered at me. The nerve. How calculated is the heart when it turns to such mockery of civility?
Suddenly I wished her husband would come back from the dead and hit her in the eye. I wished he would crawl into the lobby, smelling of his grave, and strangle her in front of me and then drag her out to the gutter and let the leaves in the wind cover her.
But I said nothing, only held the dry scentless flower in my hand that I'd plucked from the bedstand and I whisked past her as if she were no more than just another potted plant along the corridor, and I paid the morning's due at the counter.
Carolyn was at the counter. Dressed smartly in her purple hotel blouse, with her name stitched in pink over her small, purposeful breast, igniting in me some kind of minuscule reluctance. Her effortless beauty seemed to sink me. She smiled and typed in my information, accepted the cash and peeled the bills away with fingers so exacting that it was like a spider wrapping up a fly in silk, and once the bills were in the right slots, she smiled approvingly to the open cash drawer and snapped it closed, then looked up and thanked me.
I took my eyes away from her hands, and the name over the breast on her blouse, and the thin, painted lips of her pressed smile, and never felt as cold in my life as I did then, when I realized the barrier of client and hostess would never be crossed.
Behind my back, I stuffed the colorless ill-attended flower into my back pocket where she could never know that it had ever existed, hearing it crumple in dry cracks and raspy scratches.
"Thank you, Carolyn," I muttered, staring blankly into her eyes, filling no void in the ensuing silence. And I stood there for a bit, unalarmed at all, feeling my body lose heat and pressure while my head in turn expanded like a balloon. I closed my eyes for a bit and pictured that decrepit old lady from the elevator and how I prayed for her pain in a hospital bed to be unlike anything another human being had ever suffered, and I passed gently over a thought as to what her dead husband must have been like in his prime, and I pictured him making love to the old lady when she had been in her prime, too, and the motions they would set underneath the brittle, starched woolen coverlet of the hotel bed, like young snakes awaking from womb of the serpent mother.
I smiled to myself, forgiving the old lady her trespasses. Age was awful lonely, after all.
All things must end. So too would I. And Carolyn would be dead one day as well. And the mortician would pop open the buttons of her blouse, take the shirt down past her shoulders and remove the bra, then insert a scalpel blade vertically down her middle and witness the bones of her and the stillborn heart and he would never know the desire that I once had in my little life for this speechless hotel counter girl.
When I opened my eyes, Carolyn was staring at me with distress and confusion, and when she asked very politely, with a properly somber concern, if I was feeling ill today, of course I said yes, and that it was just a mild head cold, but enough to leave me a bit out of sorts of course, and I smiled nervously at her and pretended every bit of the way that it was just a cold. Only a passing cold.
But it's not just a cold. It's a cold life, but not just an affliction that will be passing any time soon. I might stay at the hotel indefinitely. And in sleep might I dream of being the perpetual mortician, and would I too dream of her tonight, on the steel bed, lit up by hard fluorescent lights, saddled dreamily with the task of preparing this beautiful girl for the sleep of eternity.
My cold, loveless hands on her cold, lifeless stomach.