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The crunching of gravel under the minivan’s wheels sounded like the grinding molars of the gods to Alan’s ears. Or maybe it was his own grinding molars.
“Mommy! Davey took my crayons and is coloring in my coloring book!”
“Daddy! She won’t share with me!”
“It’s my coloring book! Mommy!”
“You kids, shut up!” Ellen shouted, raising the ambient sound level significantly. “We’re almost there, and if you keep complaining, I’m going to take the crayons and coloring book and throw them out the window.”
Silence fell over the back seat of the van. Alan estimated it would last at least fifteen seconds.
“Honestly, those two –” Ellen began.
“They’re tired. It was a long trip,” Alan suggested.
“Well, I’m tired, too. After a trip like that, who wouldn’t be.” She shook her head. “Honestly, all that way, and all we get on the plane is a croissant, cheese, and some sort of ‘zesty spread.’”
He shrugged. Airline food didn’t thrill him, but it didn’t bother him that much.
“Plastic silverware. Can you believe it? Plastic silverware. What, they think we’re terrorists?”
Alan thought of the kids. That wasn’t such a bad guess.
“No, they're just cheap. And the wine. Chablis? Give me a break. Like anyone drinks Chablis any more. They couldn’t serve a Chenin Blanc? Or a Chardonnay?”
“I had something labeled ‘Red Wine,’” he observed. “At least you had a varietal.”
“Plastic silverware and Chablis. Goddamned cheap airline.”
“Well, the tickets were a good price.”
“If we were flying business class we’d have a choice of wine. And real metal silverware.”
“If we were flying business class,” he reminded her, “we wouldn’t be flying. That’d be, like, two or three house payments for the four of us.”
“Well, you get what you pay for,” Ellen reminded him, unnecessarily.
And, boy, do I pay, Alan mused.
“Before the kids,” Ellen suggested, “we’d have flown business class. And we’d have been in a real car, not this big box.”
Alan decided not to point out that he’d been making a lot less money then, and she'd been unemployed, and they’d been living in a small apartment, and they’d probably have been driving a little compact car that Ellen would have found cramped and noisy and bumpy.
“I assume this ‘out of the way get-away place’ you picked out has real silverware?” she asked.
“Ow!” Davey yelled. “Mommy, Jenny’s hitting me!”
“I am not! He was going to draw on the back of the seat!”
The van jostled over a large dip in the gravel road.
“Ah!” Davey yelled. “I dropped my crayons! I dropped my crayons!”
“Alan, be careful, for heaven’s sake. This road is a real mess.”
He shrugged. It was actually better than he’d thought it would be. It was late in the season, though, and the gravel was thin in some places, ruts and potholes and even washboarding on the dirt beneath it.
This place had better be worth it. Otherwise he’d hear about that, too.
“Plastic silverware and Chablis,” Ellen muttered.
The hotel – more of a complex or a compound, to be accurate, a crazyquilt of structures old and new, bound together by added construction – rose up around them in three directions. There were quite a few cars in the parking lot, which was a good sign, he thought.
Still, Ellen didn’t look impressed. “What kind of place is this? Are you sure this is the right place?”
Alan said, “Land’s End Inn. There’s the sign. This is the place that Jason sang the praises of.”
“Well, Jason ...” She let that trail off, her opinion of Jason’s taste in hotels was clear.
Alan pulled on his jacket – a chill wind was slipping across the lot -- and trudged to the back of the van. I hate this. He made a face at the dirt that had gotten kicked up over vehicle. Who’d have thought dirt would show up on such an ugly brown color? Ellen had complained about the color, too, when they’d picked up the vehicle at the airport, and he’d had to talk her out of making him go back to demand a different van.
“Kids, out of the car! Now!”
He tried to remember when Ellen’s voice had started sounding like fingernails on a chalkboard. He remember her laughing, once. He remembered murmurs and sighs, and quiet jokes, and a big fire in the fireplace. He remembered movies. How long since they’d been to the movies? Together? Just the two of them?
“Hi, Daddy!” Davey had scrambled into the back of the van and was waving through the window. Alan popped open the hatch. “Can I help?”
“David Edward Price, you get back here this instant!” Ellen called from the side door. “Alan, tell him to get out over here.”
“Do as your mother says,” Alan said, wearily, reaching for the first of the big bags.
“Ha ha ha!” Jenny laughed, pointing. “Davey’s in trouble, Davey’s in trouble!”
“I just want to help!” Davey yelled, face clouding up.
“David, get over here this instant!”
I wish we hadn’t done this. I wish it would all go away.
“Be careful, sir,” the man in the tuxedo said, quietly. He reached past Alan and grabbed two of the bags, hoisting them easily. “Be careful what you wish for,” he added, tromping across the gravel toward the broad steps of the entrance.
He had a monocle, which just had to be an affectation, but it took Alan a moment to understand what the man had said. And a longer moment to realize it was in response to something he hadn’t spoken aloud.
He grabbed a few more bags (because that’s what the man did, he’d been informed by Ellen many years ago), and followed the tuxedo, leaving Ellen to round up the kids.
The lobby of the hotel was – just as interesting as esoteric as the outside. Lots of large, comfy chairs and divans, of various styles but all screaming to be sat upon, interspersed with tables and knicknacks and other curiosities.
Ellen had taken the kids over into the nook that served as a gift shop. It was mostly, from his glimpse, post cards and various tchotchkes, along with several spinners of what looked like used paperbacks and (more intriguingly) some shelves of cider and wine with various local labels.
“Davey, put that down!”
“Mommy, Davey is touching that stuff you told him not to!”
Maybe they’d have Chablis. That would be perfect, wouldn’t it? He wished it might be gin …
Didn't Jason say they had a bar here?
Rather than a recessed counter area like most hotels, the check-in here was at a massive wooden desk, a credenza behind it, centered against the side wall. An old computer monitor and keyboard sat to one side of it; atop it a large lockbox, an old-fashioned black bakelite phone, and an oversized register.
Behind it was –
Did he know her?
He stepped up as the woman was poring through the register. She was young, and fairly pretty, but looked wan and tired, like it had been a long shift at the end of a long day at the end of a long week. He knew that feeling.
She held up a finger, even as she flipped the page, looking for something.
At length, because he couldn’t help it (sort of a reverse Pavlovian reaction, he supposed), he reached down and tapped the large desk bell there.
She stopped what she was doing, a flicker of annoyance as she looked up at him, replaced by a professional smile. “Welcome to ...” She paused, peered at him, raised an eyebrow. “... Land’s End. Do you have a reservation?”
He smiled back, trying to ignore the shouting match going on between Davey and Jenny (aided and abetted by Ellen). “I sure hope so. Price. Alan.”
Sarah (that was her name, according to the plastic tag clipped to her sweater) nodded, turned to the keyboard, tapped a few times. He was amused, vaguely, to see it was an old command line system of some sort. It went with the rest of the antiques. “Here we are. Price - Alan, Ellen, David, Jennifer.”
He blinked. Had he given everyone’s names when he made reservations?
She blinked, too, then looked up at him. “Alan and Ellen?”
He’d seen the reaction a hundred times. “Makes it interesting when someone answers the phone at home,” he said, using the same old line.
He remembered how they’d used to laugh about it, too. These days, though, it was just annoying, and last month Ellen had put some sort of phone company voice mail service installed so that callers were routed to voice mail boxes after prompts for “Alan with an A, or Ellen with an E.” He thought was rude, but …
“I’ll bet.” She sighed, keyed in a couple of cryptic commands, hit Return, waited, and was rewarded with a beep. “I have you in –” she looked at the screen again. “— Room O.”
“No, O, the letter.” She flipped open the lock box and rummaged around inside, finally pulling out a key with a large black tag hooked to it. “Here you go.”
“Alan, are you about finished?" The voice came from over his shoulder, and he tried not to hunch at it. “Davey! Give that back to your sister! Alan, I could use your help over here.”
He smiled, with significantly less cheer than before, at the girl. “Do you need my credit card?”
A tired grin back. “No. You can settle it when you leave.”
“Alan – if you’re quite done making goo-goo eyes over there, I’d like you – Jenny! No!”
He looked at the girl, who looked back, then they both chuckled spontaneously. “Sorry for the ‘goo-goo eyes,’” he said.
“Um … no problem.”
“You ever been married?”
“Not yet.” She held up her left hand, showing off a modest ring. “Engaged.”
“Going through with it?”
“I – don’t know.”
He nodded. “Well, if you do –”
He sighed. “Give him a break. Sometimes. Just ... a break.”
She nodded gravely.
“David Edward Price, you come back over here –” Ellen’s voice was cut off with a crash of glass, a yell, a smack, and a cry.
He winced, closed his eyes, not wanting to turn around. You don’t want to get married, girl. I’m sorry I ever did. I wish I wish it had never happened. I wish this had never happened. None of it. Anything would be better –
“Be careful of what you don’t know about, sir.”
Sarah was looking at him. There was a little boy next to her now, about Jenny’s age. He wondered if they were related. The boy frowned, and whispered something to the girl, who shot him a dirty look back. Then she added, “Sometimes, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
“And sometimes not,” he realized he’d muttered back. Then he blinked, abruptly embarrassed by the turn in the conversation. He jingled the room key, coughed. “Um, where did you say the room was?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Through those doors, past the lounge, up the right-hand stairs, across the breezeway, through the bar –” She rattled directions off for a good 45 seconds, and he had to ask her twice more before he was fairly certain he had it right.
“Thanks.” He stood there a long moment, wishing there was something else he could do, or say, to prolong the moment. A bit of quiet, polite, human dialog. When had that become so precious to him? The girl watched him with tired cordiality, maybe a hint of compassion in her eyes. The little boy just stared.
I have to turn and go now. Get Ellen and the kids, go on up, get unpacked, try to –
He chuckled, nervous, without sincerity, not knowing what else to say, ashamed of his paralysis. He let the sound carry him into a turn. Looking across the lobby, he saw Ellen had the kids under control, for a few brief moments, and was again browsing the wine selection, while a housekeeper busied herself with something on the floor.
He suddenly realized he couldn’t go over there. He simply couldn’t.
He grabbed the two largest bags, Ellen's clothes and the kids', and fled into the hotel, following the directions he’d received.
Up the stairs. Down the stairs. Through a deserted bar. Empty corridors, save for one nook where a man was reading a large book in an older leather chair.
Maybe they’ll get lost finding me. Maybe I can –
What? Get away? Don’t be an idiot, he berated himself. At most, he’d have a few extra minutes, just to himself. Though there were more suitcases downstairs, and Ellen would be in a foul mood if she had to carry them. And she’d be in a foul mood if he was there in the room just waiting for her. And she’d be in a foul mood if –
He kept going. The hallways, stairways, passages, chambers passed through and by, doors large and small, painted and stained, wood and glass, numbered and lettered and named, all seemed endless. He feared he was lost three times, was certain he’d gone too far, that he’d practically walked back to the city – when he spotted it, a tall, navy blue four-panel door at the very end of a long hallway, the letter “O” upon the center, gilt chipped off the bottom, leaving it a broken loop.
Ellen would be furious. The kids would be impossible. It didn’t matter. He’d at least get a few minutes of quiet, of peace, of something other than complaints about his cheapness, or demands on his attention, or being a sounding board for bitches about the food or the climate or crayons or the other people around them. About silverware and Chablis, for God’s sake. He’d get away from it, even for just a brief interval, even though it would hit him all the harder when Ellen caught up with him, when the kids swarmed in, when –
He put the bags down, fumbled with the lock, and swung the door open.
It was dark inside. More than dark. It was pitch black. Not just a room with the shades pulled, there was a sense of void within, of looking out and down into a pit of infinite breadth and depth.
For brief moments, he stared into that darkness, waiting for his eyes to adjust. They didn’t. It was dim at the far end of the corridor, but he couldn’t even see carpet beyond the door sill.
He should reach in and fumble for the light switch. But …
The farthest room down the longest corridor. The thought flickered through his mind. Careful. If you go to the Land’s End, you might just fall off.
He considered it. He didn’t know if it was real, or just a mental escape.
He realized he didn’t really care.
He left the bags where they were. He pocketed the key.
-- Dave Hill