Issue 159, Fall 2001
Here, after midnight on the seventh floor, room service is provided by a refugee. Her name—unlikely consonants, and then too many vowels—is printed on an apron tag. Her face is fiery, peppered by the many sweets she sucks from “late till six” as she sits on her hard chair at what the waiters call the Bus Station. It is her job to collect the ordered trays of food and drink from the service hatch and take them down the corridors—now reeking of cigars, cheap scent and cannabis, and far from silent with the clatterings of one-night stands and thoughtless television sets and arguments—to restless, needy men who ought to be in bed asleep. A man, awake beyond midnight, is unpredictable.
The refugee—let's not attempt to say her name—is only meant to place the tray outside the room, knock lightly on the door and disappear. Those are the rules. Wise rules. A dark hotel is ruinous. No close contact between the busgirls and the guests is tolerated. No touting for gratuities. No entry to the rooms. No extra services. They have to come and go unseen, discreet and tedious as nuns. Before the rules were imposed, a girl had been attacked, and many had been bribed or groped or compromised. One girl, on the second floor, had been a part-time prostitute. She'd tucked her business card into the napkin on each tray and done quite nicely for herself. Another one had sold thin reefers to the regulars. A third, invited into rooms for God knows what, had stolen watches, wallets, credit cards. A fourth, just for the hell of it, had helped herself to shoes and dropped them down the lift shaft for rats to eat and ghosts to wear.
Sometimes, of course, the busgirl on the seventh floor cannot avoid the guests. They have to pass her as they come and go. Or else she finds them waiting at an open door. And then she says good morning, and good night, excuse me, thank you, please, good-bye—but that is almost all she says or understands. She has, however, learned the menu words for those occasions when the men don't use their telephones but come along the corridor and try to order food through her. Club sandwich comes out almost perfectly. The choice of coffees, beers and snacks are quickly recognized. Champagne. Fish chowder. House burger and a side of fries. Rice salad with a pork brochette. She can recite a list of fourteen whiskies. She's tasted all of them. But ask her anything about herself and she will turn a deep and helpless red. She will not understand, she cannot say, she cannot tell her story, what has happened to her home, her village and her family. She shakes her damaged face at these late men, but nothing tumbles out. There are no words inside the pepper pot except the words for hotel food.
So then, how can she tell the man who occupies Suite 17 on Tuesday nights that she's in love with him, that she has fallen for the suppers on his service tray and is seduced by what he wants to eat? He always orders open sandwiches, sweet salad and the sort of hinting, aromatic tea that, normally, a woman drinks.
How can she tell the gentleman how much she hates the corridors? She doesn't have the vowels or consonants.
In the closing hours of the night, when it is quiet, she has to tour the seventh floor collecting trays and crockery and anything that's left outside the rooms. There's always bread for her to eat and untouched vegetables, sometimes a piece of meat or cheese, some fries, some long-cold soup. She puts the almost empty bottles to her mouth. She licks the liqueur glasses clean. Once in a while, if she's in luck, she's drunk by dawn on other people's dregs. And then—her shift fast coming to an end—she snoozes at the Bus Station and dreams, rehearsing what she'll need to say to change, to resurrect her life. Despite wise rules, the day must come when she'll have the opportunity to go through doors. AH of the doors that have been shut on her. A corridor of locked and bolted doors. The door to Suite 17. The door to all those hazards and gratuities.
And if she ever dares to knock and wait until the door is opened, when it swings, when all the light from outside is let in, then she will not be lost for words, not in her dreams.
She will not turn a deep and helpless red. She'll see herself reflected in the bathroom's steamy mirrors, wrapped in the hotel's thick white towels, feet up before the television set.
She'll see herself propped up by cushions on the bed. Beyond the perfume and the smoke, the man is waiting on her with a tray.
Her new life seems a long way off. Ten thousand trays away. Meanwhile, she mutters to herself and practices vocabulary with all the items she can name: dressed prawns. Jack Daniel's, chowder, salt, a single glass of dry white wine, champagne. Club sandwich comes out almost perfectly again. She orders for herself—another dream—the sort of hinting, aromatic tea that, normally, a woman drinks. She says good morning to the places she has lost. And good night, too. Excuse me. Thank you. Please. Good-bye.