Excerpt from Christmas Bus
“It looks pretty, Bill,” said Karma, the day clerk. The string of lights threatening to fall on her head cast shifting rainbows over her face. She’d outlasted most of the perky college students he hired. Within a month or two at the Hotel Williams—the “Hotel Bill,” as the long-term residents called it—new desk clerks usually saw more of the real world than they cared to. But Karma had stayed two years.
The easy-listening station finished “White Christmas” and started “From a Distance.”
Bill snorted. “Whitney Houston?”
“Bette Midler,” Karma corrected. “I hate this song.”
“Yeah, me too.” Bill ducked to avoid hitting his head on the curved place where the ceiling met the wall. The Hotel Williams was nearly a hundred years old, and the ceilings arched inward. It looked like it might have been a nice place half a century before, but now it was the worst flophouse in the city. Someone had redecorated in the 70s, with dark, chunky furniture. Luckily, chunky meant sturdy. Even heated domestic arguments only dinged the already-dinged finish.
To Bill’s eye, the blasted place always looked too dark. No matter where he installed lights or placed lamps, shadows muddied the edges, same as the traffic patterns in the carpet, or the grime around the windows. The shadows were ground in. Every Christmas he played with lights, but he could never get rid of the shadows.
“You believe that, Karma?” Bill asked, jerking his head at the radio as he crackled and popped his way down the ladder.
She looked up from the cleaning schedule. “Come again?”
“The song. You think we look all shiny and pretty from where God sits?”
“The gospel according to Bette Midler?” She sniffed. “God has better eyesight than that. He sees sparrows.”
Two blue eyes behind wire glasses and a head of wispy gray hair appeared behind the counter. Bill jumped. He hadn’t realized Agnes had crept up on them. “I rode the Christmas bus!” she crowed.
“Great, Agnes!” Karma said. “Was it worth the eight bucks?” Some entrepreneur was selling double-decker bus tours of the lighted downtown.
“Got off at the library,” Agnes answered. “Drug conviction in room 212.” Agnes spent most days spying on the guests and researching their criminal records on the library Internet.
“When?” Bill asked.
The blue eyes narrowed. “1972.”
Bill nodded solemnly. “I’ll keep an eye on him.” Every couple of months, Agnes’ information came in handy. Even paranoids could have actual scary neighbors—especially at the Hotel Williams.