Margaret Lowry used the butt of one cigarette to light another. She stood staring down at the blank pages scattered on the bed. She was daunted by them. It looked like a rubbish bin had been turned over. Still, she hoped that maybe if she thought hard enough, the words would magically appear. But the truth was that she didn’t even have a story in her head. The shrill ring of the landline suddenly blared through the hotel room, causing her to start. The phone looked too old to even receive calls. She picked it up, slowly bringing to her ear.
“Margaret! I’ve been calling you all night!”
Margaret suddenly felt guilty that she had missed Roger’s calls.
“I’m sorry,” she sighed. “My phone’s still in my satchel.”
“Why would you do that? I was seriously worried, and you didn’t even think to call me?” Roger was annoyed. Time to placate.
“Everything’s fine,” she said.
Margaret didn’t want to say anything else because she wanted to move on to another subject.
“Were you able to get the suite?” Roger asked.
She could hear the entitlement in his voice and knew he wouldn’t like the answer.
Silence. Then he said, “We pre-paid. They were supposed to hold it.”
“That’s for tomorrow night, but they were able to get me a room.”
“Is it nice?” he asked.
“No, it’s creepy,” she replied. “They said it’s their last one and they don’t usually rent it out.”
She examined the room. Opposite the single bed sat a dresser. There was one window and a tiny bathroom full of single item things. Maybe it was a sign. The loveseat in the corner didn’t seem to fit, but she liked it. With the green velvet fabric and gold embroidery, the vintage art-deco piece didn’t fit the white-washed, modern look of the nouveau riche hotel remodel.
“Well, you’d have to see it.”
She heard Roger laugh a little. “From the way you’re talking about it, I hope I never have to.”
She smiled. “They assured me they’d have our suite ready when you get here.”
The line went quiet. Like her writing, there wasn’t anything left to say.
Margaret closed her eyes and sat down on the edge of the bed. The papers crumbled, some falling to the floor along with her pen. She paid them no mind.
“I can’t wait to see you,” she said.
“Thanks, honey. Good night.”
“Wait a second,” she interjected.
“How was your day?” she asked.
“Tiring. I’m just at home. Getting ready to go to bed.”
“So that’s code for…”
“That’s code for I’m tired, sweetie. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Okay…love you. Be safe on your flight.”
“Love you, too.”
Roger hung up the phone.
Margaret listened to nothing for a minute. Then she heard a wave of static that sounded like a distorted whisper. She quickly placed the phone back on the receiver. She glanced around the room, looking for a hotel booklet with a room service menu, but didn’t see one. There wasn’t a television, either. At least there was an old ash tray. Looking closer at the faded logo on it, she saw the name, The Broadway Hotel. It must have been a long time ago because the hotel was now called The Imperial.
She set her cigarette in the ash tray and reached for her satchel. Even though she had packed her computer, she removed a pad of paper and a pen. Writing long hand was the easiest way to collect her thoughts. Her gaze drifted to the ribbon of cigarette smoke winding its way along the hem of the open curtains.
“Well, since I don’t have a story to write. I’m going to write about how I feel,” she said to herself. “But how do I feel? Like an imposter.”
She put the pen to the paper and began writing.
‘Did you really think an M.F.A. from Cornell would make you a writer?’
I didn’t know if that was the page speaking or my conscience. Either way, it stung.
‘The digital clock on the bedside stand read 8:02PM. It felt so much later. The twin bed was as comfortable as expected when you’re a late check-in to a sold out hotel. As I sat in the broom closet/maid quarters deemed the only room left, I got the metaphor. I’ve been living off the leftovers of my creativity. Too scared to give myself entirely to my characters or my story. I always play it safe. I feel very alone in this room. I wish I would have snatched up the desk clerk’s offer to book me at the Marriot down the highway. But I was too tired and needed a nicotine fix. So while you’re telling the truth, why didn’t you answer Roger’s calls? Truth? I left him hanging because I just didn’t care.
My suitcase remains by the door. The dry cleaning bag carrying my wedding dress is set atop it. Luckily, the big day is a week away. Long enough for me to build up the excitement I had yet to feel. All the upper echelon of the New York City literary society was coming. An upstate destination wedding for the guests to feel like they were a Kennedy or something. As if their lives in the city were so hectic, they needed to runaway to the boutique town of Saratoga Springs to enjoy mineral baths, horse racing, and gambling. However, even with all the status my soon-to-be in-laws boasted, I still had to pack and lug around my wedding dress. Their reminder to me that I was only marrying into the upper class. I wasn’t one of them.
Beyond the single window of my room, Friday night was alive and going strong on Broadway Boulevard. People step out from the bars and restaurants only to turn around and head back in, drunk on Travers week energy. They call the race the midsummer Derby. Horseracing, the sport of kings.’
“These words are as pathetic as my life,” she said.
She reached over and picked up her cigarette from the ash tray. She took a pull and blew the smoke directly onto the page as if to make the words disappear.
In the bathroom, Golden McCollough was standing at the toilet, urinating, and listening to Margaret complain.
“What are you talking about, Margaret? You’ve got a pretty interesting life,” he said.
He zipped up his pants and went to sink to wash his hands. Through the wall, he could hear Margaret’s muffled words as she continued to read aloud.
‘I can see the terrace of the hotel’s main suite from my room. A group of dapper young men in their summer suits stood there. They held cigars in hand, and betting cards still stuck out of their pockets like each one was the lucky one. Though none were; they were still in their pockets. Dangling off their arms were the well-to-do dames in their A-line dresses and linen pantsuits. Even after a full day in the humidity, their hair retained its style beneath the brightly colored fascinators that graced their heads. Unlike the men, they held sweating glasses of white wine. One girl laughed obnoxiously loud when her chap told a mediocre joke, glancing at her friends with a look that said, ‘don’t leave me hanging’. They didn’t, and everyone laughed. I grimaced, gathering that I probably just saw my future.’
Golden stared at his reflection in the mirror. It didn’t matter how long Margaret was away; she always came back to him. When she was gone, he missed her. He missed her more than any other girl he had met. He loved her more than any other, too, but he was not a marrying man. He couldn’t give Margaret the life she wanted.
He dried his hands and walked into the next room where Margaret sat on the bed, writing.
“I don’t why you spend so much time doing that,” he said. “No one is ever going to read it. If they do, they’re just going to think you’re crazy.”
Margaret ignored him.
“Look, Margaret, are we going out or staying in?”
A knock sounded at the door. Margaret stood up to answer it.
“We expecting someone?” Golden asked.
Margaret walked right by him and opened the door. She smiled at the sight of some dandy in a silk dinner suit wearing diamond stud earrings. He had never seen any man dressed like that.
“What’s this? A poor man’s Diamond Jim Brady?” Golden remarked.
“At least you found me,” Margaret said to the other man.
“Yes, it seems they hid you in the keep,” he replied, and entered the room. He looked around, mortified.
“This isn’t acceptable,” he decreed. “They should’ve given you a better room.”
“It’s fine for a night, Malcolm.”
Malcolm blinked hard. “I disagree.”
He brushed the cushion of the loveseat with his hand before sitting down. Golden watched him from where was standing in the bathroom doorway.
“Hi, Malcolm. I’m Golden McCollough,” he said, and frowned.
Malcolm disregarded him and spoke to Margaret, instead.
“Are you coming to dinner, darling?”
“No, she’s not,” Golden said. “And I don’t appreciate the interruption.”
Margaret shook her head.
“All the usual suspects will be there,” Malcolm went on. “It should be terribly dull.”
“I thought I might stay in and write. I’m working on a deadline,” Margaret said.
“Oh, it’s just that ghastly wedding that’s been taking up all your time. Margaret, I’m your editor. You’re a fine writer. You don’t need to lock yourself away especially in a dive like this.”
Golden was offended. “Who is this guy? Get rid of him.”
Malcom stood and brushed off his dress pants and straightened his bow tie.
“Suit yourself. I’ll see you at breakfast tomorrow. We’ll have mimosas!”
Margaret smiled. “You make life look so easy.”
“That’s because it is, darling,” Malcom replied.
He left the room like he couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Margaret stood and went to the window. Placing her arm on the frame, she looked down at the street.
After a moment, Golden went and peered over her shoulder to see what was so interesting. On the terrace below, a party was taking place. He recognized some of the local gangsters, racehorse owners, and a group of young men wet behind the ears. He had seen them at a gambling parlor the night before and swindled their money. Then he looked at Margaret’s profile and inclining his head toward hers, he lightly blew on the back of her neck. She flinched. Nothing more.
“Well, if that’s how it’s going to be, doll, I guess we’re staying in.” He took a step back. “I’ll just make myself comfortable.”
He sat down on the side of the bed and started to take off the vest of his pinstriped suit and untied his bow tie.
Margaret moved away from the window and sat down on the loveseat. Resting her elbows on her knees, she stared down at the floor.
“I don’t think I want to get married.” A sob rose in her throat and she started to cry. “What’s wrong with me?”
She wiped the tears from her eyes with her hand. Then she stood up and went into the bathroom. Turning on the tap, she washed her face with cold water. She stared at her reflection seeing nothing but an insecure woman who would rather end a relationship than risk being hurt. Suddenly, a loud pop sounded in the bedroom like a gun had gone off. She froze in fear.
Golden was holding a bubbling bottle of champagne when Margaret stepped out of the bathroom. She had washed off her makeup and looked pale.
“Would you like a glass?” he asked, and smiled.
She stared past him with a look of urgency like she didn’t even know he was there. Golden didn’t know what else to say or do to lift her spirits. He had seen her through bouts of melancholia before, but this one was particularly troubling. Her family believed she was deranged. That’s why they wanted to pawn her off to a hoity-toity marriage. But her fiancé, Roger, stupid Roger, didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground, and he certainly didn’t know Margaret. With him, she would eventually end up discarded or in a lunatic asylum. Golden thought he would almost rather kill her himself then watch her die a slow, wealthy death.
He kept an eye on her as she lit a cigarette. She took a few drags and seemed to come back to herself. Then she started to disrobe. Holding two glasses and the bottle of champagne, Golden lay back on the bed and watched her. When she was down to her slip, she came to lay beside him. He expected her to relax into his embrace, but she propped up the pillows and took up the notepad and pen.
“All I want to do is write,” she murmured. “I just wish I had a story.”
Golden smoothed a hand down her hair and along her shoulder. “I’ll tell you a story.”
Margaret recoiled and the bed creaked. Her head tingled and she felt like a bug was crawling down her shoulder. She looked around the room, feeling disorientated.
“I’m too stressed,” she said to herself.
She pressed her head back into the pillows and took a deep breath. Then composing her thoughts, she started to write.
‘There was this shit hillbilly named Jarvis Wheeler. A rum runner named Golden McCollough used to give him a dime to find old bootlegger shacks. It was the cost of doing business. He needed to hide those bodies somewhere. Somebody always wants to kill somebody. They just have to find someone to do it. So, he filled that need. No regrets.’
The words came easy to Margaret. The block had finally been broken and she could hear the character’s voice speaking in her head. When she finally stopped to rub a cramp from her right hand, she saw that the bedside clock read 10:47PM. Almost three hours had gone by since Malcom had visited. It didn’t matter. The bullet had been shot from the gun. She had found her creative spark and her wedding was the farthest thing from her mind.
“Love that smile when you get a bright idea, doll, but my story’s not free,” Golden said. “What do I want for it? I’m glad you asked, Margaret. I want you to stay the night. You’re a good listener.”
Margaret’s brow was furrowed in concentration, and she didn’t reply. Golden affectionately brushed the side of her cheek with his knuckle. She looked up and wiped away his touch with her fingertips.
“So, I take it that you want to hear more,” he said.
She looked down at her pad of paper and he kept talking.
“This next job I did for your father. You know how he always says that he doesn’t have blood on his hands? That’s because it’s all on mine. I know you don’t believe he’s a gangster, but he’d never look so smart without me. It’s why he doesn’t care when we’re together even if you’re supposed to marry someone else. He trusts me and knows that I’ll take care of you.”
Margaret didn’t remember falling asleep, but she when awoke, it was so dark she thought her eyes were still closed. The curtains were drawn, but she could see the glow of street lights framing the fabric. Sitting up, she strained her vision around the room and noticed that the bathroom door was shut. At its base, a thin line of light emanated. She climbed out of the bed slowly and started toward it. Just as she reached her hand to the knob, it opened. She gasped at the sight of Golden and stumbled back, hitting the bedframe.
“Take it easy, baby. I’m right here,” he said, taking her in his arms.
“Golden…” she murmured.
She jerked awake. The hotel room was still dark, but the curtains weren’t drawn and the bathroom door was open. No light on. Outside was quiet. The clock read 3:00AM. Flicking the lamp on, she reached for her cigarettes on the bedside stand and lit one. Then she looked down at what she had written.
‘Jarvis raised a hand to shield his eyes from the blare of headlights. His bagman was late as usual. But other’s people agendas did not matter to a hitman like Golden…’
Golden took a swig from a near empty bottle of champagne and looked at the stacks of paper at the foot of the bed. The notes had multiplied while he had been asleep. He knew he had told her too much. There was only one way to take it back. Golden glanced over at Margaret. She was still sleeping. He brushed the hair away from her face with his hand.
“I guess I should tell you how the story ends. I paid that dumb fuck Jarvis Wheeler a dime as usual and he found his own grave. Had to do it,” he said. “He knew where too many bodies were buried.”
He took the last gulp from the bottle then set it on the bedside stand.
“And now, so do you. Sorry, doll face…”
Margaret’s eyes flew open the moment he clasped his hands around her throat. Ignoring the urge to pull away, he held her panicked gaze and tightened his grip. She struggled.
Margaret woke up shaking and in a cold sweat. She had fallen off the bed. She felt a sharp pain on the back of her head. Papers with her handwriting on them were scattered around her. The sound of a car horn blared through the open window where the curtains fanned in the morning breeze. She distinctly remembered it being shut when she went to sleep the night before. Outside, the town was already bustling into another day, the sun shining bright.
She pulled herself back onto the bed and caught sight of an empty champagne bottle on the opposite nightstand. She had no idea where it had come from. She had not had anything to drink the night before. She heard a tick…tick…tick. She looked toward it and saw an old wind up brass alarm clock on the dresser. She reached for her satchel and pulled out her cellphone, but it was dead. She looked for an outlet to recharge it. The only one in the room was antiquated and didn’t fit the plug. She felt like she was coming unhinged with confusion. She picked up the hotel room’s phone. She took in deep breaths as she listened to its odd tinny ring.
“Front desk,” someone answered.
“Good morning, could you please connect me with Malcolm Lewis’ room?”
“Of course, Miss Lowry, just a moment.”
Margaret’s breathing started to labor. After a moment, the front desk clerk came back on the line.
“I’m sorry, we have no one registered under that name,” he said.
“Did he check out? Did he leave me a message?”
“I will look into it and promptly get back to you,” The desk clerk replied, overly polite. “Is there someone else you’d like me to call for you, Miss Lowry?”
“No. Just Malcolm! I’m in Room 58. Please tell him to come here immediately.”
Margaret hung up the phone. In her panic, she dressed quickly in a linen suit and gathered her notes into her satchel. There was a knock on the door.
“Malcolm?” she called, uncertainly.
“Room service,” said a voice from the hallway.
“That’s not funny,” Margaret said, and rushed to the door.
Upon opening, she was shocked to see a waiter carrying a breakfast tray.
“Good morning, Miss Lowry. Breakfast for two.” he said. He stepped into the room and set the tray of food on the bed. Margaret looked at it; a full continental breakfast with two of everything.
“I didn’t this,” she told him.
The waiter did not disagree with her. Instead, he picked up a notecard next to one of the coffee cups and handed it to her.
“This was at the front desk this morning. I hope everything is to your satisfaction.”
Room 58. Breakfast for two.
The cursive writing was too perfect. Margaret felt a little shudder, but ignored it. The waiter exited the room. The door clicked shut, and Margaret tossed the note back onto the tray. It landed in one of the coffee cups.
I can’t wait to see you…
Those words she had spoken to Roger the night before echoed in her head. Now, they meant something. She really couldn’t wait to be with him again in a real world outside of her book. The writing she had done the night before had left her mind. On her way out to pick him up the airport, she stopped at the dresser mirror to apply her lipstick. In the reflection, she noticed that one of the two coffee cups was missing from the breakfast tray.
“Where are you going dressed like that?”
She felt a chill and spun around at the sound of the voice.
She saw Golden McCollough sitting on the window sill, a lit cigarette in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other. He was half dressed in an undershirt and black suit pants with the suspenders dangling.
Margaret screamed. Golden started, almost dropping his cigarette and coffee.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, distressed. “I know things got a little rough last night, but I told you I was sorry!”
Margaret started to hyperventilate and pointed a finger at him.
“You’re not really here!”
Golden looked at her like she had two heads and launched into a tirade.
“Jesus! Why is it always like this with you? Sometimes you act like the fucking crazy dame that everyone says you are!”
Margaret grabbed her satchel. Then she turned to grab her luggage. It was no longer there. Golden stood up from where he was sitting on the sill and Margaret screamed again.
“Stay away from me!”
Golden reacted by throwing his coffee cup at the wall, breaking it. Margaret sprinted to the bedroom door. Her hands were shaking so badly that she fumbled with the lock. She could feel Golden move close behind her.
“You want to leave?” he asked.
He flipped the deadbolt and opened the door. Margaret seized her escape and ran down the hallway. The elevator was on her floor. She rushed into it and skidded into the back wall. After a momentary pause, she looked back down the hallway and saw Golden standing in the doorway of Room 58. He glared back at her then slammed the door shut. Margaret clutched her satchel to her chest. Her heart was pounding.
The voice was right next to her. She looked and saw a young man with a harmless expression dressed as an elevator operator. She hadn’t noticed him when she came screeching in. Nor could she remember him from the night before. She nodded. He closed the elevator gate and shifted the large industrial lever. The elevator lurched into a slow descent. When it stopped, he opened the gate again for her to leave.
“Enjoy your day, Miss Lowry.”
Margaret stepped out into the lobby without a reply. Looking around, she noticed the multitudes of people coming and going. Men were dressed in smart business suits and derbies that had gone out of style years ago while the women were outfitted in low-waisted fashions of the 1920s with bobbed hairstyles and cloche hats. The outside street roared with the engines of Model T automobiles and the clopping of horse drawn carriages. A sign of gold-painted letters hung above the hotel’s revolving door. It read, The Broadway Hotel, Saratoga Springs, New York. Est.: 1919
To be continued…
A Ghost in Time is the first installment of a series of short stories entitled The Literary Incident of Margaret Lowry. Part Two, The Moonshiner and the Truth coming soon.