written, edited, and produced by Viktor Devonne for 2 Night Stay
performed and recorded by Charles Stunning
in memory of Eric Heppel
Margaret entered the service elevator, once again tucked away from the public view, and felt the mechanical latch as it banged metal to metal. The platform rose in its familiar way with the gentle rumble, and a dissonant ding signaled the door about the open. Margaret pushed the cart into the second hallway of her evening, and noticed the lights suffered a dismal dim too early for the hour.
According to the note, the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Hestings was imminent. 210 had checked out earlier that morning and it was time for a new arrival.
Margaret opened the door with her set of keys, and pushed the door with her backside, to bring the cart into the room. She felt for a switch while she leaned back, and the room was suddenly brightened again.
“Damn and blast,” a voice moaned behind her. She exhaled sharply and prepared for any number of things.
When she turned, she was more surprised to see a man in a tuxedo fidgeting with a cufflink.
“Harold,” came a soothing, yet scolding, feminine voice.
“I’m sorry, Gracie, would you please?” The man’s voice was warmer now.
Margaret watched as the man put out his left wrist, helplessly, as the gentle voice’s owner—a stunning woman at about 35 in a light pink chiffon gown—assisted. Holding a handful of fresh bedding, Margaret held her stance—and her tongue—for the moment.
“Harold, why do you insist on…” the woman, presumably Gracie, trailed off with a laugh. It filled the room, bouncing off the walls with a comforting vibrato. Her fingers, while more delicate than his, were by no means more adept at the cufflinks. He took the opportunity to sweep her into his arms.
Room 210, clad in a mint green pale paisley wallpaper, was lit by lamps covered in a soft yellow fabric. Margaret squinted. She hesitated to interrupt the couple, and she wasn’t so certain she could.
She managed to squeak out a, “Madam?” and while the volume was such that the five feet should’ve been sufficient to carry it, Harold and Gracie St. Cloud would not be responding.
Margaret realized there need be no further ceremony to the proceedings, and trudged along forward as cheerfully as she could. She had heard of the St. Clouds, and while she had never made their acquaintance—now or at the time of their lives—she knew what was to come.
Gracie held her husband’s face in her palms as she gave him a chaste but meaningful kiss. “We are going to be late.” He held his waist towards her, intimating a request for a change of plans, but despite a wry smile, she was unmoved. “We’ll be home in four hours, Harold. You can hold tight.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do!” Harold laughed, squeezing her hindquarters, no doubt smothered in a girdle and padding, but all the same alluring.
Margaret pulled the cart towards the bed and began the process, musing at the unfamiliar couple’s intimacy, and sneaking looks throughout their display.
Gracie was clasping her own bracelets, having finally managed to get Harold’s cufflinks in order. Her deep chestnut hair, nearly red in the light, was fabulously styled with exotic combs likely from her husband’s findings. Her soft peachy skin, powdered and rouged, contrasted deeply with her long eyelashes and cotton candy lipstain. She was prettier than the newspapers showed.
Harold St. Cloud was slightly older, graying perhaps prematurely, but who could imagine him under stress? The man was famous on Gilman Street, having made his fortune on the backs of the significantly unfortunate. The factory, Margaret recalled, was still in business but had a massive publicity campaign in the recent years, promising to make up for their failings.
Margaret stretched the sheets across the bed and maneuvered around the still flirting couple. While Margaret wasn’t certain what time it was for them, she knew she still needed to complete yet another two rooms after this. She would not have the time tonight to be a fly on the walls for these beautiful people, much as she would love the moment to sit, crochet, and snack on a pile of licorice taffy—to watch history unfold.
“Still too involved in themselves to notice someone like me,” Margaret muttered. The newcomers traditionally ignored her, either out of insistence of their vigor or still unaware of their state. The St. Clouds however had been living in a cloud of their own for more than thirty years. That was unusual.
“A-ha,” cooed the delirious Gracie, “And they say she has to spend ten days in jail for it!”
Harold gave a knowing guffaw. Margaret surmised the gossip would take them at least a few minutes, so she backed the trolley to the second room of the suite.
“Oh, heavens,” Margaret gasped, clasping her chest. She was face to face with a young girl in a white cotton dressing gown. This be a Vincent Price horror, she would have sooner guessed than a stop on her rounds.
The girl, the spitting image of her mother, was obviously Beth St. Cloud. The daughter of Harold St. Cloud, radium king of Gilman Street, had her own claim to fame and kitchen table gossip.
“Hello,” she said, smiling.
Margaret stood perfectly still, her oxygen disagreeing with her bodily requirements. She stared directly at the girl, a pleasant little thing of fewer than 10 years. Her pudgy cheeks gave way to a friendly grin, her hands holding a gently loved stuffed rabbit. She was sitting on the edge of a tempest-tossed bed.
“I said, hello!” the young thing spoke up, on the verge of laughter.
“Yes, hello—“ Margaret stammered. Would that she was better prepared, she properly de-bugged her eyes, and permitted a docile smile. “How are you, young lady?”
“I’m not a lady!” laughed the girl, ready to be cast in a Darby O’Gill picture, “I’m Beth!”
Margaret nodded slowly. This was a new development. She looked behind her for a moment to see if perhaps Beth’s parents would now be in a frenzy that some crazy maid from three decades in the future was suddenly in the room out of nowhere, talking to their child.
“Oh. They won’t,” Beth assured Margaret.
“Won’t…?” Margaret asked, slowly turning her head back to the little girl.
“Won’t see you. “ Beth nearly rolled her eyes in the obviousness, “They’re dead.”
“Oh.” Margaret stopped herself from finishing a sentence she would barely understand beginning. Another new development.
“I understand.” Margaret lied boldly. She pushed her cart further into the room, nearly parallel to Beth. Her hair was blonder than her mother’s. Her eyes were her father’s. Her tone and general understanding of the nature of things seemed beyond that of her youth.
“You have work to do,” sighed Beth on the verge of a tantrum collapse. “You always have work to do.”
“I—“ Margaret scanned her memory for any fragment that may aide her in this moment, “I don’t think we’ve met, Beth.”
“No. Not you.” Beth’s rag doll body protested contrary to her want. “All of you. You all come in here and have to clean and I have no one to play with.”
Beth had met other maids in the hotel over the years, Margaret realized; probably several who were not prepared for a precocious ghost child demanding a round of jacks while her dead parents laughed mindlessly about the latest Mae West scandal.
It was December 1927 forever for Beth St. Cloud, age nine and a half– forever.
Margaret looked up at the wall, both relieved and disoriented to see that the clock’s ticking did not match any furthering of time. Perhaps, after all, she had a moment on this Christmas Eve to sit with Beth.
“Dominoes?” Beth said, trying to make a guess at Margaret’s mind, which she gleefully recognized had paused all this grown up distraction of cleaning.
“Dominoes.” Margaret repeated, nodding. Within what seemed like seconds, Beth had produced a collection of ivory rectangles with ebony black dots.
“I play first,” Beth said authoritatively. “I have double nines.” She presented the corresponding piece as if she was a grifter playing an ace previously hidden.
Shortly, chains of domino pieces covered the lower half of the unmade bed, the comforter of which had been peeled back for their playing space.
“That’s not a two,” laughed Beth, “that’s a four! You can’t play that! I win!”
Margaret, who was all but certain she had in fact played a piece with two dots, had to consider she was being hustled by a nine year old. “You win,” Margaret relented.
“Is it Christmas Eve?” Beth asked suddenly, as if it just occurred to her.
Margaret took the abruptness in stride, all things considered, “It is. You should be in bed. Santa won’t come if you’re awake.”
“Santa won’t come if I’m asleep either,” Beth said with the cynicism of a Wall Street broker.
“Oh, now…” Margaret didn’t know how to argue the realism of Santa Claus with a child who already knew if there was an afterlife. “That’s not…”
She had nothing.
“It’s okay,” Beth clucked her tongue, world weary before the age of ten. “Daddy got me everything anyway. But I never get anything new.”
Margaret considered, no, likely if these specters were in some sort of time loop, they would experience the same familiar year-end treats that 1927 had to offer and no later. Beth seemed to be quite aware of the limitation, and Margaret was lucky enough that the novelty of a second person paying attention to her outweighed the limitation of the ever-present domino set.
“You should go,” Beth muttered, defeatedly.
Startled, Margaret knew this was true, but had expected a tug of war when she broke the news to Beth. She had certainly not expected Beth would beat her to it.
“I should.” Margaret said.
“I’ll be nice to the new guests, don’t worry.” Beth said, with a fresh innocence, “They won’t be afraid of me.”
Margaret contemplated quietly. “You do scare them sometimes,” she smiled, well aware that when Beth didn’t get her way, the guests of room 210—and sometimes 211—suffered for it.
“I know,” Beth sounded almost sorry as she collected her dominos and returned them to a velvet sachet.
“But we played a game,” Margaret said, understanding. “So you’ll be good.”
Beth gave an expression that made Margaret laugh; Beth had made no such promise. But it was understood. She would be good. Beth shuffled out of the bed, her feet now on the floor as she stumbled over to her mother’s sewing bag before the dresser.
“Before you go…” Beth said.
She handed Margaret a set of scissors that gleamed like silver. A robust, intimidating set, they brought Margaret’s hand down a few inches in pure heft.
“Please.” Beth looked directly into Margaret’s eyes so deeply, the blues blended.
Margaret put her fingers around the scissors and stood up. The ever nonpromising handbag was soon home to them. “I’ll take them,” she said with a sincerity she really knew better of.
Margaret tucked Beth into bed, handing her one of many dolls in her collection. The sheets pressed down, the comforter returned, the pillows in order, Margaret kissed Beth goodbye on the forehead, and blessed her own selfish lucky stars she was not scheduled to work New Year’s Day.
She sponged the bathroom sink, and refilled the tablet of soap. Collecting all her things, she stole a look at Harold and Gracie St. Cloud, still mid-embrace. Six days was an impossible accumulation of time for such malice, such violence. This couple, as close as Paul and Joanne, as they ignored the very presence of their young child, near-waltzing in the living room, chuckling about their tickets for the new Kern and Hammerstein next Thursday—they would never make it.
New Year’s Day 1928, the family of St. Cloud became legend. The rumors persisted young Elizabeth Ann took the scissors to her parents and then herself ten minutes before they were to go out. The motive was the parents failing to stay in the hotel room with her to play games all night, and instead they were to visit the at the plant. That night they were celebrating a new collection of glowing watchfaces St. Cloud Inc. was set to announce, and would cause the death of hundreds of the women who helped manufactured them. Harold would avoid the lawsuits and public scrutiny, and the seats, row C, at Showboat would stay empty that Thursday night.
A final look, Margaret vainly searched for an explanation for the murders in the motionless faces of Harold and Gracie St. Cloud. Surely they knew, or would know. Harold lit up a cigarette, and Gracie selected one of several options for mink coats. They headed toward the door, and Margaret paused, cart in her hands, tears welling in her eyes. As they began to disappear out the door, Harold turned a moment and looked at Margaret directly.
As time, and assumedly space, held still for Margaret in this instance, her latest in eyes meeting her own when she didn’t expect them to—Margaret felt her stomach drop. Her own blue eyes lost all periphery; the walls, the floor, her better judgment, and saw simply Harold’s face.
His face was one of pain, of sadness, of well-worn understanding what he could not fix. He was a bastard, and he knew it, and could do nothing for it. His legacy was lodged uncomfortably with those who he hadn’t given a damn about; the people of the world he would instead exploit. For all his evils, for all his damage to the community, a look of hardened regret pushed through at Margaret in the stillness. “She didn’t do it,” he said. He stared forward at her, “Beth didn’t do it.”And with that, he turned again, with his time—space to follow—returning to its supposedly natural state to his wife as they laughed at something she said about Garbo and Swanson, and left into the night.
Margaret felt the air warm upon their exit. She didn’t need to look in the next room to confirm Beth wasn’t there. She didn’t need to check her bag for the scissors.
She leaned her back against the door, and pushed out back into the hallway, and allowed it to close behind her.
She continued pushing forward, secure in the unprovable thought, the unfulfilling awareness of Beth’s innocence, asleep behind that door. She stared down at the floor as she pushed the cart forward to her next room.
Music used in the recording:
- “Sulking” – William Rosati