I stopped at the first hotel I could find. The hotel clerk was a grey-haired man with eyes like dull, unsharpened pencils. He only sort of watched me come in with one eye half fixed on an old Canadian Geographic magazine that was rounded at the corners due to repeated use. “Looking for a room?” he asked; but didn’t quite seem to be talking to anyone in particular.
I asked him if he had any vacancies.
“What does the sign out front say?” he replied in a tired, surly voice.
I hadn’t even noticed a sign. “I didn’t think there was a sign.”
“I can tell you without even looking that is says vacancy,” he said. The clerk licked his finger, and slowly brought it to the corner of the page. He flipped pages with the same grace possessed by a grizzly bear breaking into a garbage can. “It always says vacancy. We’re never full.”
I assure you he was very proud of himself.
“Can I have a room, please?” I finally asked. My eyes were now heavy. They felt like bags of sand desperately trying to pull down the curtains after the first act of a very long, tedious play.
“Yup,” The clerk said. “Yup, yup.” He continued to peruse his magazine. “Have you seen it before?” he asked.
Seen what? I want a room! “No – uh, seen what?”
“The Yukon. This issue is all about the Yukon.” He looked out the window and his vision faded into a far off dream of the past. “I planned to go there when I was a young man,” his voice fell into a deep sigh. He reached under the table and pulled out a key. “Room 445,” he half-whispered. His eyes were glazed, transparent, and shimmered in longing for a life he would never live.
The lights in the elevator buzzed as I rode it up to the the fourth floor. It was not so loud that I could not hear the dreadful music emanating from the old muffled speakers, but loud enough that the sound was drowned out and the notes fell flat of anything resembling harmony. There was no ding when I reached my floor, and so the elevator doors startled me as they opened. As I stepped into the hall, the buzzing followed me in every light bulb which was hanging overhead. Constant buzzing filled the air ever so delicately, but yet sharp enough to slightly assault the ears. This is life, I thought. Endless minor annoyances; unavoidable; unstoppable. Then came a soft sound from below the floor; a subtle array of strings vibrating in deep harmony. The harsh percussion of drums soon followed through the paper thin floor and walls, and then a voice joined. Muffled through inches of cheap plywood and carpet, the voice crashed vaguely familiar tones into the hallway.
I marched back towards the elevator, encapsulated by the soft melody protruding through the fabric of the hotel. Down to the first floor. The music grew stronger and louder. I could see the old clerk still sitting in his chair with the magazine sprawled across his lap and his head tilted back, dreaming of far away places. To the left there was a door which I had not noticed before. There was the source of the music. Jazzy bass notes rolled across the floor. The violent strum of guitar strings streaming through the air were accompanied by that sickeningly sweet voice. As I entered the room I saw the bar was populated mainly by rough looking men who had likely spent far too many late nights awake driving down the same road I had turned off of.
The band was an ensemble of older men with beards. In the middle of the stage, like a fiery ember, stood a young lady with her lips nearly pursed around the microphone. I can’t remember most of the words she sang; but during long nights I can often hear a few words echo through the empty air of my bedroom:
“I will never be set free
Because I hold myself in chains
Prisoner of my own ideals
Abuse runs through my veins”
I sat awhile and listened. The song soon ended. The band performed a haunting rendition of “Lilac Wine”, then some other old jazz songs; but the room focused always on the woman. The singer was the pearl of this hotel bar. Her red hair scorched the dark air that seemed to be watercoloured by cigarette smoke, and she looked deeply under-dressed compared to the rest of the band, in a tee-shirt with the words “Come at me” written across the breast, and jean shorts that barely came down far enough to cover anything. Her shoeless feet tapped as she sang, as if in tune with a completely different song.
Eventually the room got quiet when the band stopped playing, and packed up. Most of the patrons went back to their drinks and guzzled away whatever troubles they happened to be facing. I sat alone. Soon the speakers played fuzzy rock music that was barely legible, and the customers became rowdy, laughing with one another. I sat alone. The bartender asked me if I wanted anything else. I said no. “It’s last call, you know,” he told me. I assured him that my answer was not changed. He wandered off to offer last minute hangovers to the regulars.
I sat alone, looking into my empty glass. Suddenly, a sharp, yet delicate voice appeared out of the space immediately next to me. “Never seen you before,” she said. I looked up as I nearly pounced out of my stool. “Where are you from?” she asked.
A bonfire flowed like liquid out of the top of her head and just past her shoulders. “Not here,” I said.
“Everybody’s from there,” her ocean blue eyes were a little too big for her face, but nearly seemed to make up for the size of her lips.
I stirred my straw around my glass as she leaned forward.
“That’s my husband,” she said, pointing to a skinny man wearing a snapback turned slightly to the side.
I sat unsure how I was expected to respond. Better say something. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” she said. “He’s an idiot.”
She hopped up out of the stool, and bounced onto the floor. “But I love him,” she said as she leaned back against the bar.
“I don’t get to make many friends,” she told me, “He only lets me talk to people when he’s drunk and not paying attention.”
Had I been watching him, I would have seen her husband suddenly and without any premeditation throw a shot glass across the room, which happened to cross the path of a rather burly man wearing a wife-beater. It crossed his path in the head. That’s when the woman said, “Nice meeting you, friend” and sauntered out into the lobby. That’s also when the burly man threw a punch, missed, and landed himself on the floor. I don’t know what the husband screamed as I left the bar looking for the woman; but I didn’t find her. I returned to my room lost in thought. Is that really all it takes to make a friend?