This is how it began. We stood in the parking lot under the hot sun looking at one another. “It’s a job for a couple,” he said. “The advertisement said for a couple.” I shrugged and waited, not having anything else to do. He told me about the hours and the pay and asked me if I had ever worked a motel before. I told him no and by the end of the week I was the manager at Paradise. That is how it began.
7:30 a.m. The alarm goes off but I am already awake. It is a cheap tin alarm clock I found in the back of one of the dresser drawers when I first moved in. It gains ten minutes every night no matter how much I fiddle with the adjustment lever on the back. The clock has been painted so many times over the years it has a wooden sound to it now, a clicking almost, that reminds me of something I’ve long since forgotten, something from my childhood, I imagine. I listen to it every morning, until the spring runs down, trying to remember what it is exactly. It doesn’t matter that I can’t recall. The sound cheers me inexplicably and I look forward to it every day.
After a few minutes I get out of bed and pad into the living room/kitchen that is part of the small, two-room manager’s apartment. As all men do who live without the benefit of family or the gentleness of women, I have established a morning routine that introduces me slowly to the day. The coffeepot is already prepared, the coffee and water put into the percolator last night so all I have to do is plug it into the wall. I turn the TV on to the twenty-four-hour news program and adjust the volume to a little below speaking level. By the time I get out of the shower, the air will be filled with the aroma of fresh-brewed and the murmur of voices.
A few doors up the street the grocery store is already open and my routine takes me there before the first cup of the day. Since moving to the United States from England nearly twenty years ago, I’ve lived in Dallas, Chicago, New Orleans, and as far as San Juan, Puerto Rico, and I have rarely passed a day without picking up a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle.
It was better years ago. Everybody knows that. Charles McCabe was writing for the paper then, and John Wasserman, whose brilliant and savage reviews taught me more about writing than any teacher. Herb Caen was brash then and not as self-satisfied as he became later. But habits die hard and I continue to buy it every day. The crossword puzzle is still medium-easy and the comics page tells me better than the headlines what’s going on in the world. “Doonesbury.” “Calvin and Hobbes.” “Bloom County.”
The sky is gray and overcast. “It always is,” I tell the tourists who ask. “It’ll burn off around noon.” But it hasn’t for the past few days. The sun is a pink button in the fog and I attribute the color to the thousands of acres of virgin forest that are blazing out of control back there behind the first two or three ridges. Everybody shrugs when the subject comes up and so do I. What else can you do? It happens every summer.
8:30 a.m. The pot of coffee gone, the first cigarettes smoked, the crossword neatly inked. I am out in the parking lot with a piece of notebook paper in my hand. Last night I went through the Registration Book and copied down the license numbers of all the guests’ cars. I’m going through them now, matching numbers to rooms, trying to determine who has already checked out.
Some people leave the key in the door when they go, making the job easy, but others leave it in the room, locking the door behind them, occasionally even a “Do Not Disturb” sign left on the door handle, so I have no idea whether someone is in the room or not. Check-out time is officially eleven but the maids start work long before then. I set out the bags and baskets for the dirty linen and begin with the rooms I know have already been vacated, stripping the sheets and pillowcases from the beds, the towels and washcloths from the bathrooms. Sheets go into huge bags to be picked up by the local laundry people later in the day. Pillowcases and towels are washed here on the premises.
Each room contains its own private recollections. People slept here, that great trusting in the world, and the odor of them, of their lives, hangs heavy in the air, the windows condensed with it. The small things they leave behind tell their human story: the bloodied face cloth, the unfinished love letter, the handful of pennies stacked neatly on a chair, and the matchbox full of marijuana seeds.
9:30 a.m. The maids begin to arrive. Pansy is of indeterminate age and always looks as though she is just returning from an all-night party, tired and haggard and hung over. She has an enormous tattoo that swarms over one breast and peeks above the second button of her shirt. She likes to stand too close to you, so her breasts press against you, and watches for a reaction, any reaction, that will remind her and perhaps you, too, that something is still moving and shaking in the land.
Rose, another maid, chain-smokes Marlboro Lights and drinks endless Coca-Colas and smiles at any kind word or sign. Her husband always accompanies her. Robert is whip thin, drives an ancient Lincoln Continental, and speaks abruptly and curtly, as though he has a pretty damn good idea of everything that is going on in life and doesn’t much care for any of it. He is on disability insurance from an accident that happened years ago and now he plays lowball with the boys downtown and helps Rose clean the rooms for three-thirty-five an hour.
The last maid comes. Dierdre. Seventeen years old, two children, and long since beaten by it all, so that she stares at you now from vacant eyes and nods or shakes her head slowly in answer to any question. She rarely speaks. For the longest time there was no one she could talk to and now she feels there’s nothing left to say.
11 a.m. Most of the night’s guests are gone, the maids are busy in the rooms, the second load of towels and pillowcases are out of the dryer. Mr. and Mrs. Maghandi, the owners, are here. They left India as newlyweds, lived in England for twenty-two years before moving to the States and settling down in Humboldt County, thousands of miles from their homes and families and farther every day. They have a solemn, quiet dignity about them and when they smile it is quickly and almost secretly. Mr. Maghandi’s wife works briskly with the maids, urging them on, while he and I go through the night’s receipts.
Most motels are managed by couples and I was able to get the job here, as a single person, mainly because they have such happy memories of England. They have adopted me in some odd way and every morning they bring me breakfast: hot, sweet Indian tea and a bowl of some lightly scented curried dish. They like me, I am sure of this. They are even fond of me in their private way. And I have no idea why.
It was a good night: all the rooms were rented and there were no major problems. We guess at the coming night’s occupancy, discuss the merits of keeping Dierdre on the payroll, and reminisce together about life in the rainy and granite towns of England.
1 p.m. The Maghandis and the maids have left. The rest of the afternoon is mine. The day is still overcast, the apartment dark and cave-like, so I move the typewriter, fresh coffee, and cigarettes out into the office, by the pane glass windows overlooking the street. This is where, I tell myself on the self-doubting days, I get the real work done. My reason for being here.
My real work is: The Book. I’ve been working on it for a couple of years now and it’s half a draft away from completion. I work on it out of routine, from force of will, the joy of it long since gone. A couple of small literary publishers, the kind who give you lots of strokes but no money up front, have expressed an interest in it and sometimes I wonder what I’ll do when it’s over with and published. I’ve lived with it for so long I’d almost be lost without it. But for now, as for the past year or so, the book is the thing. The cause, the reason, and the goal.
4 p.m. The day’s session at the typewriter completed, I make my rounds of the rooms which have been left open all day to air them out. I’m carrying a small can of aerosol spray which smells like, well, motel rooms. I don’t like the stuff, but people seem to expect that smell when they check into a room so I give each a shot as I go around.
Back in the apartment I check the TV Guide, all twenty-six channels, but decide against it. In this kind of job, television can get to you too easily and I try to avoid it as much as possible. Instead, I sit in the office again and pick at a book of word puzzles and watch the people go back and forth outside the window.
The Paradise Motel is in the middle of an area about three blocks wide at its widest point and about ten blocks long — a long, skinny triangle of land, jammed in between the polite neighborhoods and the freeway. There are stretches of street and worn-out apartment buildings that hold no potential for either the landlord or the real estate developer. The poor folks live here. The old washed-up whites and the young blacks with no direction to go but one. Left-over hippies from the late Sixties, sold out finally to middle-age and money, operating vegetarian take-outs and secondhand record stores. College students too broke to find a nicer place to live and too proud to settle for the dormitories. Serious and intent young men with beards and tweed jackets. Girls in jeans and pea coats. The self-conscious sweet young things and the don’t-give-a-damn good-looking studs. All of the cliches. I can’t remember where I fit in during my own college days and perhaps it’s just as well.
6 p.m. The day is starting to dim and I’ve turned on the office lights and moved back into the apartment. Popping the cable channels for a movie I haven’t seen or a fight on the sports network or a good English drama on PBS. Getting up every few minutes when the doorbell buzzes with another person looking for a room for the night.
“I’m staying at Paradise.” “Call me at Paradise.” No one ever calls it THE Paradise. Even the one-nighters, the tourists passing through who have no way of knowing how this trick of language has become part of the local vocabulary, call from Santa Rosa or Crescent City or points east, saying, “Is this Paradise? Do you have room for one more?” And I myself have become accustomed to the surrealism of it. When the phone rings I say, “Paradise. May I help you?” and speak in the kindest tone I can.
8 p.m. I’m amazed how quickly I’ve learned to read their faces the moment they step into the office. The older couple on vacation and hating every minute of it. The college kid looking for somewhere to throw a party tonight, smirking behind his hand and a six-pack in his rucksack, all his friends waiting around the corner out of sight. The couple in the Volvo who ask if they can look at one of the rooms before deciding, when all they really want to do is use the bathroom. The guy in the western shirt and high-heeled boots who believes he can detect an English accent and do I know a feller from Nottingham by the name of Jeremy Gordon?
10 p.m. The rooms are beginning to fill up. I’ve already talked with most of the hotels and motels up and down the freeway, fifteen miles in each direction. Every night we call one another, checking on each other’s occupancy rate and asking for referrals as each fills up. We’ve never met, all of us desk clerks and managers working in the night, but we know each other pretty well by now and the conversations are slow and easy. I talk longest and most often with Donna, who works at a motel eight miles north of here. She tells me about her boyfriend, what they did yesterday, where they went, and what was said. The people she refers to me tell me she is blonde and very pretty and I believe them but let it go at that. There is an understanding, a line that is never crossed. Besides, I have a relationship, two years and more than miles away, that I haven’t resolved yet to anyone’s satisfaction, least of all my own.
Midnight. The last rooms to go are the most expensive ones: the suites, the rooms with the king-size beds. People check in, irritable with weariness and angry with me for having to pay what they feel are exorbitant prices. A very young couple from Redding are the last to check in. Their eyes are sparkling with love and excitement, the very nearness of one another. Their happiness is contagious and I find myself grinning at them in spite of myself. When I give them the key, the boy says, “Thank you, sir” very politely, the “sir” making me feel suddenly very old and tired. “I’m only forty!” I want to shout after them but they wouldn’t understand and anyway, to them, forty is old.
2 a.m. The “No Vacancy” sign has been on for more than an hour but the phone still rings with late, suddenly desperate travelers calling in and hoping for the long shot at any price, offering me more than the regular room rates, as though it were something negotiable. As though I had another room hidden somewhere, waiting for an occasion like this.
I’ve been out into the rooms three times. Twice to relight pilot lights on the heaters, once to break up a party I hadn’t noticed until the adjoining rooms called me to complain. This last time, as I cross the parking lot back toward the office, I see a man standing in the street, a beer can in his hand, shouting after someone already out of sight, “You can’t leave me. You love me. What did I say that was wrong?”
Postscript. At 3 a.m. a straggler from the party I thought I’d broken up an hour ago will ring the night bell to tell me what an insensitive asshole I am. At 4 a heavily medicated woman will telephone from one of the single rooms to tell me she wants to stay over another night and could I please come over and adjust the picture on her television set? At 7:30 the alarm clock will ring and I will lie there listening to it, until the spring runs down, trying to grasp what primal memory it recalls and why the sound of it cheers me so.