Authors: Nita Prose
They acknowledged me right away, which, let me just say, is rare for hotel guests. They even stepped aside so I could exit the elevator before they entered.
“I thank you for being repeat guests, Mr. and Mrs. Chen.”
Mr. Snow taught me to greet guests by name, to treat them as I would family members.
“It is we who thank you for keeping our room so orderly,” said Mr. Chen. “Mrs. Chen gets to rest while she’s here.”
“I’m getting lazy. You do everything for me,” Mrs. Chen said.
I am not one for attention-seeking behavior. I prefer to acknowledge a compliment with a nod, or silence. At that moment, I nodded, curtsied, and said, “Please enjoy your stay.”
The Chens shuffled onto the elevator and the doors closed.
The lobby was moderately busy, with new guests arriving and some checking out. At a glance, it appeared clean and orderly. No touch-ups required. Sometimes, however, guests will leave a newspaper in a state of disarray on a side table, or discard a coffee cup on the clean marble floor, where it spills its last drops and leaves an ominous blot. Whenever I notice such infelicities, I address them immediately. Strictly speaking, cleaning the lobby is not my job, but as Mr. Snow has said, good employees think outside of the box.
I pushed my trolley to the entrance of the Social Bar & Grill and parked it. Rodney was behind the bar, reading a newspaper spread on the bar top.
I walked in briskly to show that I am a woman with confidence and a sense of purpose.
“I’ve arrived,” I said.
He looked up. “Oh, hey Molly. Here for the morning papers?”
“Your assumption is one hundred percent correct.” Every day, I picked up a stack of newspapers to deliver to guest rooms as I made my rounds.
“Have you seen this?” he asked, pointing to the newspaper in front of him. He wears a very shiny Rolex watch. Even though I’m not much of a brand person, I’m well aware that Rolex is an expensive brand, which must mean Mr. Snow recognizes Rodney’s superior abilities as a bartender and pays him more than a usual bartender’s salary.
I looked at the headline Rodney pointed at: “
FAMILY FEUD ROCKS BLACK EMPIRE
“May I see that?”
“Sure.” He turned the article my way. It featured several photos, a large one of Mr. Black in his classic double-breasted suit, fending off reporters who were sticking cameras in his face. Giselle was on his arm, perfectly styled from head to toe, wearing dark sunglasses. Judging from her outfit, the photo was taken recently. Perhaps yesterday?
“Looks like trouble’s brewing in the Black family,” Rodney said. “Seems his daughter, Victoria, is forty-nine percent shareholder of the Black business empire, and he wants those shares back.”
I scanned the article. The Blacks had three children, all of them grown-up. One of the boys lived in Atlantic City, the other flitted from Thailand to the Virgin Islands or wherever else the party happened to be. In the article, Mrs. Black—the first Mrs. Black—described her two sons as “flakes” and was quoted saying, “The only way Black Properties & Investments will survive is if my daughter, Victoria, who essentially already runs the organization, becomes a half shareholder, at least.” The article went on to describe the nasty legal jabs between Mr. Black and his ex-missus. A host of other power magnates were referenced in the article, rallying on one side or the other. The article suggested that Mr. Black’s second marriage to Giselle two years ago—a woman less than half his age—marked the beginning of destabilization within the Black empire.
“Poor Giselle,” I said aloud.
“Right?” Rodney replied. “She doesn’t need this.”
A thought occurred to me. “How well do you know her, Giselle?”
Rodney whisked the paper away and slid it under the bar, bringing out a fresh stack for me to take upstairs. “Who?”
“Giselle,” I said.
“Mr. Black doesn’t let her come down here to the bar. You probably have more contact with her than I do.”
He was right. I did. I do. An unlikely and pleasing bond—dare I say friendship?—has recently formed between us, between the young and beautiful Giselle Black, second wife of the infamous property mogul, and me, Molly, insignificant room maid. I don’t talk about our bond much because Mr. Preston’s adage applies equally to gentlewomen as to gentlemen: best to keep my lips pressed shut.
I waited for Rodney to extend the conversation, leaving the kind of ample room that a single-but-not-desperate female might leave were she romantically interested in the eligible bachelor before her whose cologne hinted of bergamot and exotic masculine mystique.
I was not disappointed—not entirely, at least.
“Molly, your newspapers.” He leaned on the bar, the muscles in his forearms contracting attractively. (Since this was a bar and not a dinner table, the no-elbows-on-the-table rule did not apply.) “And Molly, by the way, thanks. For what you’re doing to help my friend, Juan Manuel. You’re really a…special girl.”
I felt a surge of warmth rush to my cheeks as if Gran had just pinched them. “I’d do the same for you, probably more. I mean, that’s what you do for friends, right? You help them out of binds?”
He put one of his hands on my wrist and subtly squeezed. The sensation was extremely pleasing and I realized suddenly how long it had been since I’d been touched at all, by anyone. He pulled away long before I was ready. I waited for him to say something more, to ask me on another date, perhaps? I wanted nothing more than a second rendezvous with Rodney Stiles. Our first occurred well over one year ago and remains a highlight of my adult life.
But I waited in vain. He turned to the coffee station and began making a fresh pot.
“You’d better get upstairs,” he said. “Or Chernobyl’s going to drop a bomb on you.”
I laughed—more of a guffaw/cough, actually. I was laughing with Rodney, not at Cheryl, which surely made it okay.
“Speaking with you has been delightful,” I said to Rodney. “Perhaps we can do it another time?” I prompted.
“You bet,” he said. “I’m here all week, haha.”
“Of course you are,” I said, matter-of-factly.
“It was a joke,” he replied with a wink.
Though I did not get the joke, I most definitely understood the wink. I floated out of the bar and collected my trolley. I could hear my heart in my ears, the excitement pumping.
Through the lobby I wheeled, nodding at guests as I walked. “Discreet courtesy, invisible but present customer service,” Mr. Snow often says. This is a manner I’ve cultivated, though I must admit it comes rather easily to me. I believe my gran taught me a lot about this way of being, though the hotel has offered me ample opportunity to practice and perfect.
This morning, I carried a happy tune in my head as I took the elevator up to the fourth floor. I headed to Mr. and Mrs. Black’s suite, Suite 401. Just as I was about to knock on their door, it opened, and Mr. Black stormed out. He was dressed in his trademark double-breasted suit, with a paper sticking out of his left breast pocket, on it, the word “DEED” in little curlicue letters. He nearly knocked me over with the brute force of his exit.
“Out of my way.”
He often did this—bowled me over or treated me like I was invisible. “My apologies, Mr. Black,” I said. “Have an enjoyable day.”
I stuck my foot in the door to keep it open, then decided I should still knock. “Housekeeping!” I called.
Giselle was seated on the divan in the sitting room, wearing a bathrobe, her head in her hands. Was she crying? I was not entirely sure. Her hair—sleek, long, and dark—was disheveled. It made me quite nervous, her hair in that state.
“Is this a good time for me to return your suite to a state of perfection?” I asked.
Giselle looked up. Her face was red, her eyes swollen. She grabbed her phone off the glass tabletop, got up, and ran to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. She switched on the fan, which, I noted, sounded loud and clunky. I would have to report that to the Maintenance Department. Next, she turned on the shower.
“Well then!” I called loudly through the bathroom door. “If you don’t mind, I’ll just tidy up in here while you prepare yourself to seize the day!”
“I said, I’ll just clean in here! Since you haven’t actually answered me….”
Nothing. It was unlike Giselle to behave in this manner. She was usually quite talkative whenever I cleaned her suite. She’d engage me in conversation, and in her presence, I felt something I rarely did with others. I felt comfortable—like I was sitting at home on the sofa with Gran.
I called out to her one more time. “My gran always said that the best way to feel better is by tidying up! If you feel sad, just grab a duster, Buster!”
But she couldn’t hear me above the running water and the clunky whirring of the fan.
I busied myself with cleaning, starting in the sitting room. The glass tabletop was a mess of smudges and fingerprints. People’s propensity to generate filth never ceases to amaze me. I grabbed my ammonia bottle and set to work, returning the table to a high and mighty shine.
I surveyed the room. The curtains were open. Fortunately, the windows had not been smeared by fingerprints, which was at least one blessing. On the bureau by the door were some envelopes, opened. A ripped corner lay curled on the floor. I retrieved it and threw it in the trash. Beside the correspondence was Giselle’s yellow purse with the gold chain-link strap. It looked valuable, but you’d never know it from the way she flung it about. The zipper at the top was open, and sticking out was a flight itinerary. I’m not one to snoop, but I couldn’t help
notice it was for two one-way flights to the Cayman Islands. Were this my purse, I would always close the zipper and make sure my precious valuables weren’t about to fall out. I took it upon myself to place the purse exactly parallel to the mail and arrange the chain strap neatly.
I surveyed the room. The carpet had been well trampled—the pile disturbed on both sides, as if someone, Mr. Black or Giselle or both, had been pacing back and forth. I took my vacuum from my trolley and plugged it in.
“Pardon the ruckus!” I called out.
I vacuumed the room in straight lines until the carpet plumped right up and looked like a newly swept Zen garden. I’ve never actually visited a Zen garden in real life, but Gran and I used to holiday together on the sofa, side by side in our living room.
“Where shall we travel tonight?” she would ask. “To the Amazon with David Attenborough or to Japan with
That night I chose Japan, and Gran and I learned all about Zen gardens. This was before she was sick, of course. I no longer engage in armchair travel because I can’t afford cable or even Netflix. Even if I did have the money, it wouldn’t be the same to armchair travel without Gran.
Right now, as I sit in Mr. Snow’s office replaying my day, it strikes me again just how odd it was that Giselle stayed in the bathroom for so long this morning. It was almost as though she didn’t want to speak with me.
After vacuuming, I moved on to the bedroom. The bed was rumpled, no tip on the pillows, which was a disappointment. I will admit that I’ve come to count on the generous tips from the Blacks. They’ve gotten me through the last few months now that I’m a one-salary household and can’t count on Gran’s earnings to help pay the rent.
I set about removing the bedsheets and crisply made up the bed, complete with perfect hospital corners and four plump, hotel-standard pillows—two hard, two soft, two pillows each, for husband and wife. The closet door was ajar, but when I went to shut it, I couldn’t because the safe inside was open. I could see one passport inside the safe, not two, some documents that looked very legal, and several stacks of money—crisp, new $100 notes, at least five stacks in total.
It’s hard to admit this, even to myself, but I am in the midst of a financial crisis. And while I’m not proud of the fact, it is nevertheless the truth that the piles of money sitting in that safe tempted me, so much so that I tidied the rest of the room as fast as I could—shoes pointing straight, negligee folded on the dressing chair, and so on, just so I could leave the bedroom and finish cleaning the rest of the suite quickly.
I returned to the sitting room, where I tended to the bar and the mini fridge. Five small bottles of Bombay gin were missing (hers, I presumed) and three mini bottles of scotch (definitely his). I replenished the stock and then emptied all the trash cans.
I heard the shower turn off, at long last, and the fan as well. And then I heard the unmistakable sound of Giselle sobbing.
She sounded very sad, so I announced that the suite was clean, took a tissue box from my trolley, and waited outside the bathroom door.
Eventually, she emerged. She was wrapped in one of the hotel’s fluffy white bathrobes. I’ve always wondered what it must be like to wear one of those robes; it must feel like being hugged by a cloud. She had a bath towel around her hair, too, in a perfect swirl, like my favorite treat—ice cream.
I held the tissue box out to her. “Need a tissue for your issue?” I asked.
She sighed. “You’re sweet,” she said. “But a tissue isn’t going to cut it.”
She walked around me and into the bedroom. I could hear her rooting around in her armoire.
“Are you quite all right?” I asked. “Can I help you in any way?”
“Not today, Molly. I don’t have the energy. Okay?”
Her voice was different, like a flat tire if it could talk, which of course it can’t except in cartoons. It was evident to me that she was most upset.
“Very well,” I said in a chipper voice. “May I clean your bathroom now?”
“No, Molly. I’m sorry. Please, not right now.”
I did not take this personally. “I’ll come back later to clean it then?”
“Good idea,” she said.
I curtsied in response to her compliment, then retrieved my trolley and buzzed myself out the door.
I set about cleaning the other rooms and suites on that floor, feeling increasingly unsettled as I did so. What was wrong with Giselle? Normally, she talked about where she was going that day, what she was doing. She solicited my opinion about whether she should wear this or that. She said pleasing things. “Molly Maid, there’s no one like you. You’re the best, and never forget it.” The warmth would rise to my face. I’d feel my chest expand a bit with every kind word.