The Staring Man
It was 2:30 in the a.m. when the naked people ran through the lobby. Maurice was so astonished that they were past the front desk before he could even register it happening. Six of them – all men. One of them waved an unshucked ear of corn.
He had no time at all to go through all the procedures in the manual in order to decide if one accommodated such an event. So Maurice could only stare while the six naked men, whoopping and jabbering, jogged past the elevators, and then through the breakfast lounge, before pushing their way out a fire exit at the back.
A high, panicked bell clattered. Still gaping, Maurice helplessly rewound his brain to decide whether or not he had actually seen – things. He squinted, tried to paint black spots into his memory so he could claim this was not so, but it was useless; so he focused on willing the whole event away.
As the night manager, Maurice was very sure it was his job to do something. The alarm bell was an easy first step. Fishing the appropriate key off the ring at his belt, he crossed the lobby to the door, shut it, and de-activated the alarm. Already his phone was ringing – and once he pacified the guest on the phone, Maurice at last had the time to feel affronted. This was a respectable hotel. He knew for a fact that their laundry standards were far more stringent than any of those motels off the highway three miles west, and more than once it had ably-served as an alternate site for small conventions crowded out of the Holiday Inn over on the backside of the airport.
He had worked here for 12 years, and he felt a parental investment in the place. This spectacle worried him. He wondered if it portended something. A place can get a reputation quickly. He found his eyes darting to the wide glass front doors, hoping to get advance warning of any other naked mobs.
Was it really just something rowdy young men had come up with on their own? Why? It seemed to Maurice like these days people did things like this so they could get on the Internet. Or people did them and then ended up on the Internet whether they wanted to or not. He knew the Internet worked one of those ways but he didn’t spend much time with it. The security cameras had probably captured the incident; but he didn’t know enough about the security apparatus to know if there was a risk that the incident could leak onto the Internet from there. He was reasonably confident that couldn’t happen, because the system hadn’t been updated in awhile.
Then Maurice remembered he was not the only witness. And so he turned his attention back to the thing which had been distracting him all night: the man sitting in the plastic chair by the tourist brochures. He had sat there since Maurice clocked in five hours before – an older gentleman, broad in the chest, gray on the head, dressed in a faded tweed suit with a vest. He sat with impeccable posture, and in all these hours had not moved to any noticeable degree. He just stared, staring straight ahead. And for any part of the night when he had no responsibilities to attend to, Maurice found himself wondering about this man.
His phone rang, and he answered: “Front desk?” The tone he used was one he had practiced many, many times, and he thought it conveyed the perfect amount of professionalism and courtesy at a volume appropriate for nighttime.
“How many hours?” the guest on the other end asked. The voice dragged along, like an old record played too slow.
“How many hours before the flight?”
This was an occasional happening – sleep walkers most of the time; but sleep callers sometimes.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have that information.”
“Am I getting a meal?”
“I’m sure you will, sir.”
“Make sure I get a meal.” And with a click, the conversation ended.
Maurice replaced the phone, stretched his shoulders back and heard three little cracks drip down his spine. Two years ago it had only been two. Or was it three years?
He felt his belly unconsciously for a moment – his uniform still fit and he took pride in that. He brushed lint off the counter, then caught himself casting a worried eye at the fire exit.
In two hours he would vacuum. He could vacuum at any time of the night he wished – actually, it wasn’t even his job to vacuum at all, they had a cleaning crew for it, but he felt that a last run with the vacuum a little before sunup gave the carpet a freshness in the morning. Respectable establishments cared about the little things – Maurice believed strongly in that.
Again he looked at the old man. His hands were propped on top of a cane; it seemed to bear a little weight, keeping him balanced and still. Maurice could see now that the man was leaned slightly forward, as if in anticipation. Still relaxed, still dignified, but looking forward to something. And yet all that was in front of him was the opposite wall.
Now, the lobby had interesting walls – Maurice had appreciated this from the start. Wood columns with miles of grain lines, paint refreshed every other year. But Maurice was very confident that the man wasn’t even looking at the walls – his eyes seemed focused on some point far beyond them; like he could see into the room on the other side with the ice machine, and something enticing happening in there.
The elevator hummed, and by the length of it Maurice guessed it came from the fourth floor. He made sure not to be staring directly at it when it returned to the lobby and opened – people found that distressing.
A man, fully dressed in a crisp, classy suit, emerged, and strode confidently up to the counter. “Evening!” he declared with confidence.
“Good evening, sir. How can I help you?”
“Have you got any ear plugs back there?”
Maurice turned to the drawer on his right. “Of course. Is there noise that’s bothering you?” He found a package of foam earplugs, placed them neatly on the counter, and then slid them towards the gentleman with one finger.
The man in the suit picked them up and slipped them in a side pocket: “Nothing like that. But I can’t sleep without the TV on, and it’s loud.”
Maurice frowned, because it was impolite to point out the obvious to a guest, and yet he could not help himself. “Couldn’t you turn the television volume down?”
The man shook his head. “No no, that wouldn’t work at all. I appreciate the help. You have a good night!” And with that, he walked right out the lobby front door into the night.
Maurice heard the man’s heels clicking away on the pavement. He didn’t understand it at all.
Flustered, he decided to fill out the cleaning assignment sheet early – normally he waited to see if there were any late night arrivals (the latest check-in he had ever done was 4:30 a.m.), or any signs of possible incidents that would require extra attention, but for once he thought it would be no great loss to record some observations early.
There were no large parties booked, and the few young guests seemed harmless enough. Two were a couple obviously slipping away from their parents for the night – Maurice used to feel slightly wicked checking such people in, but had gradually preferred to avoid confrontation over it. If they both wanted to be there, it was a safer, more comfortable environment here than in one of those motels; or, god forbid, in a truck on some dark road. At least there was affection involved, rather than the chilly commerce he saw happen occasionally.
Again he snuck a glance at the old man. Had a foot shifted forward slightly? Was his head tilted more to one side now from before? It was difficult to tell from Maurice’s vantage point. There, did the fingers flex in their grip on top of the cane?
Maurice remembered some program from television about people in the far East who would sit still for days on end, just thinking about big, spiritual things. Perhaps this old man was a traveler who had lived among them – except that Maurice was very sure those Eastern people did it with their eyes closed.
He’s just asleep, Maurice thought. No, he’s dead! This would be a whole other category of problem, and Maurice hated the thought of it. Not just the grief of seeing death in any person up-close, not just in knowing that it would be his responsibility to take action about it, but in what it said that not only might he have a corpse in his lobby, but he had let it sit there for hours as people walked by going about their business.
The phone rang again. He answered: “Front desk?”
“When is the sun coming up?”
Maurice thought back to the end of his last couple of shifts. “About 5:50, I would guess.”
“Can I see it out my window or do I have to go outside?”
Maurice referred to the room number and double-checked his map of the hotel: “The sun will be rising on the opposite side of the hotel, sir.”
“Huh. Can I move rooms? It’s very important.”
Maurice squinted, feeling this weird tingle growing behind his eyes as he tried his best to be of service. “If your room is unsatisfying, you are welcome to come down to the lobby and we can see if there’s an available room to meet your needs.”
“Oh, I thought I could just, like, go across the hall and you could open the door with a button or something. Can’t you do that?”
“No, I’m afraid there is no such button at this hotel.”
“Should I knock on some doors, maybe? Maybe if I explain it to someone they’ll let me stay with them.”
Maurice let his voice become stern, and slightly louder: “I have to ask for you to not do that; so as not to disturb other guests.”
“Okay. It’s important, though.”
The tingling spread – almost like his head was going to sleep like a dead limb. “All I can suggest, sir, is that you come to the front desk.”
“Never mind.” And the man hung up. Maurice dearly hoped that would be the end of that affair.
Normally Maurice valued the quiet – the occasional car passing on the highway, the little hums and pops he recognized in the building. Sometimes he even imagined he could hear all the way down the hallway to the lapping of the indoor pool. But tonight the silence wore at him.
He reached for a crossword puzzle – he normally didn’t afford himself such a diversion except during scheduled breaks, but he felt nervous, and he was the only authority in the place, and he could always stuff it under the counter if any other employee should pass through and take the wrong example by it. But he couldn’t answer a single clue; all of them seemed to defy reasoning. A 12-letter synonym for cat? A Latin phrase for “call the fire department”?
Maurice slapped the puzzle back down on the counter. The old man in the chair didn’t flinch.
So at last, Maurice stepped out from behind the counter. I am the night manager, he told himself, stretching his back once again, the lobby is my business. And he walked up to the old man, stopping by his left shoulder, because walking directly towards someone’s face can be taken as aggressive.
“Excuse me…excuse me, sir?” The old man did not respond at first, but now Maurice could see the subtle rise and fall of slow breathing; so the man was indeed alive.
Only after he raised his voice and repeated himself did the man blink and turn his head to face him. The motion was quick and smooth, and the man regarded Maurice with a wide grin and twinkling eyes. “Yes?”
Maurice was rather staggered that the man had actually moved. He realized he hadn’t planned for that happening. “Um…well, I’m the night manager here, my name is Maurice, and I was wondering if you are a registered guest?”
The old man’s face flushed, and he chuckled. “No, good Maurice, I am not; and I am sorry if I am creating any inconvenience for you.”
Maurice found this polite, but lacking. “Oh, you haven’t made any disturbance at all. But I do have to ask if you have anywhere you can go.”
“I do, I do. I have a grand house up on the hill. Worked all my life for it. But I do hope you will allow me to finish before I leave.”
“Finish what; if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I don’t mind at all, good Maurice. I’m shedding!”
“I’m shedding a layer. It only happens a few times in our lives, you know, when we really change over into the next stage. Like butterflies.”
Maurice thought very hard about the smartest television programs he had ever seen, and the smartest magazines he had ever read, but he had to admit he had never heard of this. “Does it, um, take long?”
“Oh, several hours at least. There were times in my life when I was hustling about so much that I didn’t even pay attention to it, and others where I had become so dull that even when it happened I couldn’t feel it, just because I didn’t believe I could feel it. Do you understand that?”
Maurice nodded, though he honestly hadn’t stopped being hung up on the word “shedding” long enough to grasp anything else.
The old man continued: “Nowadays, when it happens, I just like to make myself comfortable and really feel every bit of it. I was around the corner when I felt it coming on, and I don’t know that I have many left in me, so I thought I should quickly find some place pleasant and comfortable to let it happen.”
Maurice straightened with pride at the compliment to his lobby. “If it’s as you say, I’m flattered you chose us. Will it take much longer, do you think?”
“No, not long now. Most of the old me has already flaked away to the floor. But don’t worry – you won’t have to vacuum it!” And he chuckled again, and his grin seemed to grow. “So, you don’t mind if I…?” he let the question stay open.
Maurice was still confounded by every premise of the conversation, and yet the man had complimented the lobby. He just didn’t see it possible to put the man out on the street after that. So, straightening his uniform, he gave a little nod and said: “Please, enjoy the rest of your stay. Coffee begins brewing at 5:00 if you’re still here.”
The old man gave a final grin: “Such a kind offer. I may well need it!” And, with no further words, he turned his head away, took a deep breath, and settled back into his old pose; staring ahead to some point out beyond the wall.
As Maurice returned to the front desk, he saw something he had missed earlier – that ear of corn one of the naked people had carried. It had dropped by the potted plant that stood near the entrance to the breakfast area.
He fetched it and carried it with him back to the desk. But some impulse prevented him from throwing it away, and he set it on the counter and just looked at it. The quiet grew comfortable again, and soon he lost track of how long he had been looking at it.
Nicholas Thurkettle studied theater arts and music at Bradley University, and is now a screenwriter and playwright living in Southern California. He is a proud member of the Writers Guild of America. The back of his head is on Wikipedia, and he hopes to get the rest of himself there someday. His fiction has previously been published in Paradigm and Blood Lotus Journal and is upcoming in A Few Lines, and he blogs at www.nicholasthurkettle.com.