Essays / Experience Required / Features

Experienced Required: “Chops”

motel_bryanh_flickrIn the interview Rick told me that what the hotel needed most was someone awake and sober at 3am.  “The last guy we had in here, I found him hiding underneath his car with the coke sweats.”  Even though Rick had been born and raised fifty miles from the Minnesota-Canadian border, he’d developed a Goodfella’s accent and started wearing the only sharkskin suit ever sold at the Bemiji Men’s Warehouse Outlet.  Parked in his manager’s office with its hunting-print wallpaper and princess phone, he looked like the pit boss of an Elk’s Lodge.  “To get him outta there I had to grab him by his ankles and yank him out like a pan of brownies.  Turns out he was hiding from his bookie—guy said he was gonna break his hands. Had to fire him after that.”

I told Rick that he didn’t have anything to worry about.  I didn’t even own a car.

He hired me as a night auditor before the interview was over.

A night auditor, Rick told me, was “like an all-night accountant minus the sex appeal.”  My job would be to drink coffee all night, checking people in until 4am, when I could post the room rates on everyone’s bill.  Rick went on for a long time about balancing the ledgers and checking the bar paperwork against the register receipts—“but you went to college so you should be fine will all that math business.”  I had a degree in poetry; I used a tip card to figure out how much money I was supposed to leave at a restaurant.  The job was counting and talking to strangers, everything I was bad at.  It didn’t matter, though, since I desperately needed to prove that I could do anything that was worth exchanging for money.  No one was interested in the things I was good at, so maybe I could coast on the things I wasn’t.

Five months earlier I had graduated from college, and by July, all the grad schools that had waitlisted me stopped returning my e-mails.  That summer I crashed on my brother’s hide-a-bed, my clothes crammed in shipping boxes waiting to be labeled with some new university’s address.  I circled a few want ads in the paper, something with “writer” or “editor” in the description, but with an empty resume and writing samples full of crown sonnets my phone never rang. Most days I stuck to a strict regimen of sulking and microwaving hotdogs, sometimes broken up by calling my friends on their lunch breaks and letting them rave about their trendy publishing jobs.  Sometimes they’d ask what I was up to.  I got good at changing the subject.

By August the two options seemed to be either move into my old bunk bed in my mother’s condo or stickup a Shell station with a squirt gun and let the prison system pay for my healthcare.  Instead I got an apartment in Duluth because I could move there in a weekend.

Duluth is every Minnesotan’s Plan B for a tourist getaway.   The town has a few things going for it: it sits on Lake Superior, which feels like the ocean because you can look across and not see land on the other side; has a famous lift bridge and the world’s largest sandbar, a full seventy five minutes of entertainment .  If you lived in the Twin Cities you could pack the kids in a station wagon and stay the weekend for less than five hundred dollars, so from May to September every hotel in town sold out, which was how Rick kept the Lakeshore Inn in the black. It was a fleabag motel that looked like a shortstack of Wonder Bread sitting on  waterfront real estate.  The online reviewers complained that they’d caught the maintenance men doing doughnuts in the parking lot and found blood on their pillow cases, but every weekend it sold out like every other hotel in town.

Rick’s description of the job wasn’t inaccurate; but what the place really needed was an all-night Den Mother.  Sure, I cooked the books and ran towels up to rooms when customers called, but they also needed someone to make sure that Cinnamon—barfly/second grade teacher—didn’t sleep in the women’s room all night and miss first period.  When the husband and wife bartending team refused to speak to each other, one would walk out to the front desk and make me call the other in the bar to dictate orders.   People checked in, hated the place, and in the morning they yelled at me to give them their money back.  Per Rick’s orders, I had to tell them no and let them shout until their throats gave out.  After the first month I stopped pretending to be sympathetic; I hated the place too, but at least I wasn’t such a baby about it.

I didn’t quit, I didn’t even look for another job.  Each day as I walked to work I convinced myself that the awfulness of the job was just making me a better writer, the way that washing jeans in acid made them more expensive.  I had read at the open mics around town and people were a hell of a lot more interested in poems about drunk school teachers then they were about poems using the Pleiades as a metaphor for emotional inertia.  Now when my friends called, I raved about the life experience I was getting, how I was finally developing chops.  Then I’d recite the wrap sheet of what I’d gone through the past week, amping up the number of stacked back issues of Barely Legal we’d found in a noise-complaint room, or the seagulls who committed suicide by smashing into the windows.  I was happy just to have something to talk about.

As the months went on Rick needed me to do more customer wrangling and more figure fudging, but mostly what he needed me to do was pretend he wasn’t there on the nights when he was avoiding his pregnant wife.  Playing dumb didn’t bother me much, and I was happy to ignore the bottles of Rumple Minze that would go missing from the bar or the snoring that would sometimes drift from the manager’s office.  But I hated when I’d have to unlock the pool after hours so Rick could impress a pretty psych major who worked the morning shift.  The job was tolerable when I could shake it down for stories, but the stories only worked when I got to be morally superior.  I was happy being a tourist in Scuzzopolis, but helping Rick fool around on his wife felt more like applying for citizenship.  And I couldn’t turn him down, because he’d find some reason to fire me. I’d seen the cocktail waitress who had threatened to call OSHA get replaced, and the wife of the bartender couple stopped showing up for work after I’d seen her kibitzing with Rick’s wife Donna.  Out at the bar after the open mics, I stopped piping up about the job.  I was back to the hide-a-bed life, asking a lot of questions and changing a lot of subjects.

After a few weeks, Rick started asking for a room key.  He told me to mark it in the reservation system as “Maintenance: Heavy Drilling” and slugged my shoulder.

It was another month before Rick’s wife Donna called the front desk.  “Erik, is Rick there? I can’t find him anywhere.” She had called before to see if Rick was working or hanging out in the bar, but she’d never called that late before.  It was after midnight.  Her voice cracked with anger.

“He’s not in his office.”  This wasn’t exactly a lie.  He’d come by the front desk an hour before to get a room key.  In his car I had seen the shape of someone in the passenger seat.

“Is he there with that girl?  Erik, we’re friends, you have to tell me.”  I’d met Donna twice and helped her unload her SUV once.  I was surprised she even knew my name.

“Well…he’s not in his office.”

“I’m coming down there.”  She hung up the phone before I could say anything else.

Half an hour later I saw the headlights pull into the lot.  Donna wobbled toward the entrance, her perm going flat, and a quilted jacket over her sweat suit.  She lugged her stomach around like a chin-high stack of library books.

“Erik, I know that Rick is here.  His truck is here.”

Since hanging up the phone I’d been palming the other key to Rick’s room, making a fist and letting the teeth dig in to my fingers.  I played out the scene just like I decided I’d want to tell the story later.  “I don’t know where Rick is,” I said, looking her in the eye.  Then I laid the key flat on the desk and walked into the back office for a while.  When I came back the key was gone and so was Donna.

The building was quiet for a long time.  It was February, the off season, and in the sales office I could hear the fax machine humming to life as it printed spam faxes from auto-dialers.  I didn’t see Rick’s truck leave, but when I cut through the parking lot at the end of my shift I couldn’t find it.  Instead of catching shut-eye back at my apartment, I picked up a paper and spent the morning at a Greek diner with the want ads.  I knew that my pink slip was as good as signed.  Maybe it would take as long as finding my replacement, or maybe Rick would say he’d found me hiding underneath a car.  But I knew until then I would stop getting sick walking to work. I felt like I had just flunked a test but flunked it so badly that I didn’t have to sit around and wait for my professor to hand me back the F.  I knew what was coming and I knew I could plan for it.  And it felt okay.  It felt like chops.

Erik Leavitt spent his first twenty-five years in Minnesota desperately trying to convince anyone who would listen that he was an avant-garde slam poet.  Since then he’s been a night watchman at a no-tell motel, a professional screamer, a cashier in an evangelical bookstore, and once studied Confucianism to try and figure out how to teach composition.   These days Erik fumbles his way through social situations in the New York area.   You can read his work at ThisThatSAID, New York Quarterly, and AGNI. 

Images via bryanh and larrysphatpage/flickr

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