This story is based on and inspired by the Edward Hopper painting, “Hotel By The Railroad”. Please click on the image to view at a larger size.

HOTEL BY THE RAILROAD

In a small anteroom away from the hurly-burly of a busy office a pale, slightly built man was having his hand muscularly shaken. If you were to notice this man at all, and that in itself is highly unlikely, it would be the almost total absence of colour that would strike you. His name, for what it’s worth, is Henry Cleburne. Not a name you’d be expected to remember nor have any particular need to, as the chances of your meeting Henry in either a social or professional capacity are slim. He didn’t get to go out much and had few friends.

Henry Cleburne was a man who had given thirty year’s loyal service dedicated to the writing of schedules for the small railway company whose offices were located in the shadow of the mighty Santa Fe building in the Michigan Boulevard district of Chicago, Illinois. These schedules were Henry’s great pride, crisply denoting the routes and times of passenger and freight locomotives, with strident names like ‘The President’ and ‘The Flyer’, which scurried around Illinois and a few states beyond; states that Henry had never quite visited.

“I want you all to know just how much this great railroad company values an employee that makes thirty years of dedicated service. So, by way of a small token of our appreciation” Mr Pendleton beamed at a brief presentation ceremony during his coffee-break, “the company had returned the gesture with the gift of a weekend for two (meals not included) at any of the company’s three railroad hotels in Illinois State. The choice is yours.” Mr Pendleton cuffed Henry sportily on the shoulder, knocking him slightly off balance.

Henry, at this point, may well have murmured his thanks. Nobody was quite sure. His voice was barely audible at the best of times and over the long period of his employment his workmates had simply given up and fallen into the practice of not listening to him.

There followed a brief, uncomfortable silence, then Mr Pendleton took a large gold watch from his waistcoat pocket, studied it with a frown, smiled broadly at those around him, nodded his large head and left the room.

The heavy clump of his boots on the hardwood floor signalled the conclusion of the ceremony, and the small gathering of Henry’s colleagues from his department muttered vague congratulations and dispersed back to their desks. Henry stayed alone a while longer and read the citation a few times. He’d take it round to the wood yard in the morning and get them to knock him up a frame. It would look nice on the wall, maybe in the parlour.

Of course, he felt that this award was no more than his due, although he could have done without all the fuss. His record at the company had been exemplary and not once had he taken time off. Not even when his wife Eleanor had been in confinement with the three children. Her sister Ruth had dropped by each day to see she was okay, and to run any errands that were needed.

The brochure that accompanied the citation carried engravings of the three anonymous looking Illinois hotels, and he mentally earmarked his preference, but the final choice would be made after lengthy discussions with his wife when he got home.

He travelled back to their apartment in the lower West Side of Chicago on the elevated that evening with a frisson of anticipation, remembering with pride Mr Pendleton’s words. “A small cog in this giant machine of ours.” He’d called him, “But without all the hundreds of small cogs like our friend here the entire operation of this fine railroad would collapse and with it the future of this great country of America.” Henry Cleburne did not underestimate the responsibility of his position.

It so happened that he and his wife were about to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary on Saturday so the timing could not have been bettered. With the gentle, hypnotic clatter and roll of the commuter train, his mind drifted back to that special day thirty years ago when he arrived at the railroad company’s brand new offices to take up his position as assistant schedule compiler. And in just a few days he would be walking his bride up the aisle. New job, new wife, all in one week. A fine way to start a new life. A life filled with promise.

He recalled how, all those years ago, he had almost run the four blocks to Eleanor’s parent’s house just before the big day to tell her his exciting news. Admittedly, it wasn’t a good time to choose, what with all the preparations to be made for the big day. But as soon as he got the opportunity to break the news, why she was almost as thrilled as Henry. The extra money would come in handy, she told him. Then she said something about it being bad luck to see the bride before her wedding day and Henry was obliged to leave.

But that was all a long time ago and this was now. For Henry little had changed in thirty years and that suited him fine.

He was proud to have kept his job, that’s for sure. It was a good, secure job, and they were hard to come by these days. There were plenty of men around here who envied him that’s for sure, and any one of them would happily trade places with him right now. Men who had lost their jobs at the beginning of the great depression and were still struggling to find a couple of days employment a week. They all had families to feed and rent to pay just like him. Why only the other morning Henry had met a man who said that he had once been the general manager of some big corporation and now he was kneeling on the sidewalk shining shoes for nickels. But Henry had kept his head down and worked hard. That was how it had to be. Don’t go drawing attention to yourself and things would be fine.

The late afternoon sun was still quite high in the sky as Henry walked from the station to his home on Canal Street and he decided it would not be far out of his way to call in at Hobbs Department Store on 48th and pick up a little something special with which to surprise his wife. If he hurried he should just make the store before it closed.

Removing his hat Henry entered by the main door of the unfamiliar building and was thrown into confusion by the bewilderment of it all. Signs hanging from the ceiling directing him to departments called ‘haberdashery’ and ‘millinery’ offered little reassurance. For all Henry knew they could have been written in Russian.

An assistant stepped forward. “May I help you?”

“Oh, no, I’m just looking around, thanks.”

She stepped back a pace and amused herself at his discomfort for a while as he picked up various leather goods, handbags, purses, wallets, turned them over in his hands, checked the price and put them back down again. But now it was nearly closing time and she was keen to get home. “Perhaps… something for your wife?” She ventured.

“Well, yeah, sorta. It’s our anniversary Saturday, see. Me and the wife. Just looking for something. Nothing too…nothing too fancy.”

“I think we might find something suitable through here.” She said as she led him into a showroom area called ‘lingerie’ filled with ladies undergarments.

“Oh, I don’t know.” He said.

“I’m sure she’d like this.”

“Well, yeah, sure. She’d like that, okay.”

“What size is she?”

“Oh, about that size, I guess. I’ll take it.”

“Would you like me to gift wrap it for you?”

“Oh, no. That’s fine. I’ll just take it like it is, thanks.”

He counted out the money, picked up the package and fled the store.

Walking home through the familiar redbrick neighbourhood with something of a spring in his step, brown paper package secure under his arm, Henry thought about a little tune he’d heard on the radio that morning. Something about a bird. He considered whistling the tune as he made his way along the sidewalk but thought better of it. That wasn’t really his way at all.

He turned left onto Canal street and saw his landlady, Mrs Kowalski, sitting on the stoop with her countless children chasing around the sidewalk and playing stickball out on the street. She was busily engaged plucking a chicken and struggling to keep the feathers in the bucket held between her knees.

“Lovely evening, Mrs Kowalski” he called breezily, raising his hat as he attempted to squeeze past her and mount the steps. She didn’t look up.

“I should have time for lovely with these kids. Take them from me two days and I’ll go look for lovely. Lovely is for movie stars. Misery I got.”

He could still hear her complaints following him into the building as he began the ascent to his apartment on the fifth floor. The slow climb gave him the opportunity to think, and thinking was what he did best. His secret vice. Time was he could climb these stairs quick as a mountain lion. He was once quite a sporty guy. Played short stop for the junior league at the ball park as a kid. Could have made it too, only things got in the way. Well, a man’s got to face up to his responsibilities. Got himself a family. Brought them up good, too. All gone now.

He sees them for Thanksgiving sometimes, and they rarely forget his birthday. George, the eldest, he has his own family to think of now and lives way out west, Nebraska someplace, and has a good job with some big shot utilities company. John joined the army a couple of years ago, and now there’s talk of war in Europe. And little Emily, well, she mostly keeps herself to herself these days.

As he slid the key into the lock he noticed for the first time how dull the front door had become. It had lost its bloom and flecks of paint were peeling. He’ll have a word with Mrs Kowalski in the morning. He swung the door open and the familiar smell of stewed cabbage and furniture wax greeted him on the threshold.

“Hi, Honey. I’m home.” He called, hanging his coat and hat on the hallstand and pausing uncharacteristically to glance in the mirror and smooth down some hair.

“Don’t walk on the floor.” His wife guided him backwards onto the rug with a hand on his chest, stooped at his feet and gave the wooden boards a quick buff with her cloth. She turned back towards the kitchen. “Leave your shoes.”

He removed his shoes and followed her along the hallway, holding on to the walls to stop himself slipping on the highly polished floor, but being careful to first check that his fingers were clean.

As he entered the kitchen his wife was standing at the sink vigorously peeling potatoes, the sleeves of her floral pinafore pulled up to her elbows. He walked up behind her, put his hands on her shoulders and, standing on tiptoes attempted to reach round and kiss her cheek, but only managed to gather a small mouthful of the greying hair that hung limply down to a line at her neck.

She was taller than her husband by two or three inches, even in the plain flat mules that she wore around the apartment. Her height was yet another cross she had to bear, and it was her self-consciousness that caused her to stoop resulting in a permanently rounded back. She feared her five feet eleven inches would make her stand out in a crowd and be noticed. But it didn’t.

“Got something for ya.” He said, taking the brown paper parcel from under his arm and holding it out for her. She finished peeling the potato she was holding, put down the knife on the wooden draining board, and took the package.

“Hobbs Department Store?” For the first time since he’d arrived home, she looked him in the eye. “You suddenly got money to throw away in Hobbs Department Store? You rob a bank?”

“It’s a present.” He said, pointing at the package in her hands. “Bet y’ don’t know what’s in it.”

“I know we don’t got money to waste on no presents from no fancy Hobbs Department Store, that’s for sure.”

“Ain’t y’even gonna open it?” He watched as she put the parcel down on the kitchen table, took off her pinafore and hung it on a hook, picked up the parcel again and walked from the room. He quickly followed her through the hall and into the front parlour. This was a room reserved only for special occasions, like when the new Seers and Roebuck catalogue arrives or Mrs Maguire calls to show off her latest quilted bedspread, so Henry knew that this was quite an event.

As he entered the room his wife was sitting on the sofa unwrapping the package on her lap. She carefully unfolded the tissue paper and placed it on the arm of the sofa, then she stood and held up before her a full-length satin underslip, the colour of wet liver.

“Happy anniversary.” He said.

“You know that ain’t ‘til Saturday.” She said, chiding him gently. Then she folded the slip, replaced it in the bag, walked briskly past Henry to the bedroom and put the parcel away in a drawer.

Henry could tell that his wife liked the gift even if she didn’t show it. She wasn’t one for getting excited about such things, and he knew that her face didn’t lend itself readily to smiling. The slip had pleased her and that was sufficient.

Her aversion to adornment was almost puritanical. With the exception of the thin gold band on her wedding finger, she wore no jewellery, no makeup or decoration of any description. There was nothing about her that hinted at any secret yearning for frivolity. She had no time for vanity. But this new gift, however extravagant, had at least the advantage of being worn under her day clothes and could therefore not be viewed by those with no right. She drew comfort from that thought.

*

They rose early on Saturday. She dressed carefully, feeling for the first time the silky fabric of the new slip as it tumbled coolly down her freshly bathed and talced body. The unfamiliar sensuality of satin on her bare skin quite took her breath. Her husband emerged from the bathroom newly shaved and struggling with the collar stud of his shirt. The sight of his wife stopped him.

“You look nice.” He said, but she turned away and quickly pulled on the grey frock given to her by her sister, and the intimacy of the moment passed.

Chastened and disappointed Henry finished dressing.

There was still packing to be finished and the apartment needed tidying, so Eleanor busied herself gathering toiletries, folding clothes and smoothing the bed. Then the breakfast things needed putting away and she wondered whether to give what was left of the milk and bacon to Mrs Kowalski, but decided they would keep for a couple of days wrapped in newspaper.

Henry was soon looking at his watch impatiently. When his wife was finally finished checking the place over he gathered the luggage and led the way out of the hall and down the stairs into the street. They still had almost an hour before their train left, but he didn’t hold with taking chances as far as railroad schedules were concerned.

The train dropped them in some Midwest railroad town that Henry’s wife had never heard of. No other passenger alighted at that stop and, as far as she could see, no one joined the train either.

The wind whipped up dust from the coal yards and she tasted it’s ashen grittiness as they crossed the street.

There was no name-board over the door, but Henry took it to be the right place. It was just across the way from the railroad station, and the word “rooms” hung on a sign in the window. He looked up and down the road to check that there were no other hotels on the street, and having satisfied himself he stepped into the dusty gloom of the reception, followed by his wife.

In the back room behind the desk a small, round man sat hunched over a bakelite radio, from which a nasal voice yelled a scratchy baseball commentary. Henry and Eleanor looked at each other, wondering how to gain the attention of the desk clerk. The desktop offered no bell. Henry attempted an “ahem” kind of cough with no result, so walked tentatively around the desk, knocked on the glass of the open door and said, “Excuse me. We’d like to check in.”

The desk clerk considered this for a short while and then dragged himself reluctantly from the radio. The stump of a fat cigar was stuffed into one side of his mouth giving the appearance of a permanent sneer.

“Afternoon,” Said Henry, “How’re the Yankees doing? I’m a White Sox man m’self.”

The desk clerk snorted, sending a cloud of blue pungent smoke across the desktop. Henry was not to be intimidated.

“We have a reservation. The name’s Cleburne. Look, we’re here on your list.”

The desk clerk snorted again, spun the registration book and pointed to a space with a stubby finger. “Name. Address.” He took a key from the rack and threw it on the desk. “Room four-o-five.” He then turned his back and returned to his ballgame. “Elevator’s out.” He called and, as a helpful afterthought, “Be fixed Tuesday.”

The couple struggled up the four flights; Henry burdened with the cases, his wife with the worry of how she would sleep in such a filthy place. Breathlessly they clumped along the landing checking each room number as they went. Finally reaching their room he put down the cases and, with hands still shaking from the effort, placed the key in the lock and opened the door.

“The moment we get back to Chicago” his wife was saying as they entered the room, “you must report that man’s rudeness to the company.”

He walked across the room, rolled up the green blind and opened the window. The smell of railroad smoke and sulphur entered the room and mingled with the mildew.

Henry looked down below in the street as cars and trucks rumbled past the Western Union Telegraph office and the Five and Dime next door, and if he leaned out slightly he could see the impressive stone façade of The First National Bank Of Bloomington and the less imposing Kokomo Drug Company. Through the gaps between these buildings, he caught glimpses of the broad expanse of the Illinois River Valley and on towards Jacksonville.

His wife slumped forlornly on the bed, looking round the bleak interior. In the corner of the room, she saw the black leatherette armchair, worn shiny by the contact of countless, nameless bodies. On the wall hung a mirror framed, she noticed, in cheap pine stained red to give the impression of mahogany, just like the dresser below it. The mirror was unsuitably large, she thought, reflecting more information than she considered necessary in such a place.

Her husband’s light cough brought her back to the moment. Framed and backlit against the sash window she thought he cut quite a dash. Perhaps being in a hotel room in a strange town lent some kind of an illicit excitement to the occasion.

“Well,” he said, uncomfortably, “Here we are.” He took half a step forward, removing his tie and once again struggling with the collar stud. That done he tossed collar and tie to the floor with measured abandon.

He unbuttoned his waistcoat as he walked round to where she sat on the bed, leaned over her and reached to unfasten the back of her dress, clumsily tugging until finally it was removed, almost throwing him backwards. She sat impassively through this procedure, listening to a man’s rasping consumptive cough from an adjoining room, and felt a brief pang of compassion for her neighbour.

Then, quite hastily, he opened the front of his pants, and gently pushed her backwards onto the bed, lifted her slip and climbed onto his wife.

She felt the weight of him, his urgent thrusts and breathy spasm. A bubble of snot rose and burst on his upper lip. At this signal their meagre ceremony was complete and they wordlessly uncoupled. He slipped from her and, rolling onto his back, stared for a while at the green light falling across the ceiling until his breathing stilled.

After a time she rose and set her foot onto the linoleum faintly warmed by the pale, late summer sun. She reached into her bag, took up the cheap romantic novel she had been reading for some weeks and walked over to the armchair. She sat down rigidly and applied her mind to the book lying on her lap. She felt his wetness slide from her and considered the difficulty she’d have removing the stain once it had set.

His hand played around his pants pocket until it fell upon a pack of cigarettes. He took one and placed it between his lips, felt in his waistcoat for a match and lit the cigarette. He lay there for a while watching streams of blue smoke rise towards the ceiling, then got to his feet, buttoned his pants and walked over to the open window. He stared out in silence as a grey column of ash formed on his cigarette, broke off and fell to the floor. The clanging iron bells and steam hammers and barking linesmen intruded on their awkward privacy from four floors below.

“Five-o-nine for Chicago’ll be through soon.” He mused aloud, more to himself or the room than to any person in particular. “All the way from Los Angeles, California. She pulled outa Union Station yesterday morning, six-twenty-five on the nail. Two thousand miles. Across Arizona and clean through the Rocky Mountains up Albuquerque way. New Mexico. Apache country. Man’s gotta watch his back. On a clear night, they say fire from the smokestack can be seen way across to Abilene. Over the panhandle ’round midnight, Amarillo, and she’s on up into the Great Plains. Cheyenne. Crazy Horse. Round about sunup she’d be pulling on into Dodge City. Boy, Wild Bill got himself shot right in the back. Darned fool. Shoulda knowed. Holdin’ a full house, too. Kansas City. Rolling through the prairies, then she’s steaming up along the Rock Island line and on into the Windy City. Right on time, yessir. Right on time.” A long pause. She could hear his breathing begin to slow, and, not speaking, looked up and saw his shoulders drop as his voice tailed off wearily. “She don’t gonna be stopping off here though.”

© 2004 by Bill Philpot

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