The last of the stragglers had left and now Jeff could get down to the real work. Most of the repairs he had been doing this last week were superficial. The old hotel, a relic of the past century and a half had been the first building in this rural tourist trap to have been built with plumbing in mind. But years of oil lamps had left soot embedded in the paint and wood work. Then came the electrical wiring with its coarse installation, more an affront to the original craftsmanship. Decades of abuse followed by decades of neglect, no wonder there was so much to repair and redo each year. At least those were the thoughts Jeff had every end of season. “God, I wish I could sell this place for a decent profit. Not that I haven’t tried.” He was talking to himself, as usual when making inventory of the repairs needed and the remodeling he could afford. “Damn historical society stays on my back about keeping this place in repair but they don’t contribute a dime to its upkeep. Serve them right if this place burnt down.” Jeff held this conversation each year long about now. “Fifteen years and what have I got? Damn money pit. Costs always going up and never enough help. I doubt David will show this year. It’ll be some excuse about his wife and her family.” Wearily he went from room to room taking inventory.
“I brought you a cup of hot tea, Jeff.” Darcy appeared in the doorway holding a large cup and saucer in her hands. She was a young girl, barely twenty, at least according to her employment application. He had been reluctant to hire her but Darcy was the only one who applied for the job. He was lucky to have John and Ellen these past five years but both had given notice. They were moving to Florida in the late fall. Family trouble they called it. Her mother needed help after her stroke. Darcy had volunteered to stay and do what she could to help. Jeff looked up from the clipboard. “My, you are pretty sight.” At least that is what he wanted to say. Instead the usual utterance came from his lips, “Thank you, Darcy. That’s just what I needed right now. Put it on the table, please.” Jeff was thinking that Darcy was becoming a little more attentive to his needs. Got to be careful, don’t want to take advantage of her. Nice kid but I’m really too old for her to notice as a love interest. She set the cup and saucer on the table and then waited, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.
“Don’t let it get cold, Jeff. Can I make you a sandwich? You look a little famished.” Her voice was soft and sweet. The guests were always taken by surprise by her voice. Very soothing and reassuring. She could charm the angriest customer and have him eating out of her hand. Yes, she was a treasure at that.
“Thanks, I ‘ll take a break now. Not really hungry at the moment, just a bit frustrated. So much work to do.” Jeff sat in the chair and lifted the cup to his lips. Between sips his eyes wandered over the sheets on which his lists were made. Then it occurred to him that Darcy was still standing by the table. “Oh, forgive me, I’m lost in thought and forgot about you for the moment. Don’t let me keep you from anything. Really, the tea is good and it was very nice of you to think of me just now.”
Her eyes appeared to sparkle a little at his words and her smile widen a little. Then she disappeared through the doorway. This was the last room to be inventoried and he made two more notes on the paper. Twenty bedroom in all, five with sitting rooms attached. Each of the five had attached baths and six of the large single rooms had shared baths. The other nine shared a communal bath. The hotel was behind the times and not likely to catch up anytime soon. If the historical society had it’s say it never would. Of course none of society members ever patronised his hotel. No, it wasn’t fashionable enough for them. All these thoughts were distracting him from his work. Jeff finished his tea and then took the cup and saucer down to the kitchen.
As Jeff stood in the kitchen looking over his notes he began to divide the crucial repairs from the nonessential and then order them by cost of materials. Then he looked at the nonessential repairs and estimate their individual costs. David’s wife Anne had been arguing for less spending so that she and Dave could have a larger share of the income. Every year at audit time she would accuse Jeff of hiding profits and padding expenses. Anne kept pushing Dave to sell the property. Jeff would have been agreeable but finding a buyer was the problem. The exit off the interstate was over ten miles from the hotel and most folk seldom took the old county highway that bordered the property. Even the bank was skeptical that anyone would want to buy the place knowing the investment needed to pay off the mortgage and put in the upgrades needed to attract the kind of business that would pay for the capitalization needed. Jeff looked at the lists and began to juggle figures in his head. “This place is a trap, a quagmire. We need another ten good years at least to get those mortgages down enough for me and dave to get out even. Then what? This place is the only job I’ve ever known. I’m thirty eight now. In ten years I’ll be almost fifty with no prospect of a job.” The thought was not a pleasant one. Twelve years ago he had a girlfriend but she saw the future and wanted no part in his sacrifice. Now he rarely looked at any woman with any kind of longing. No, it would be useless, a tease that would only make me more miserable. These thoughts came often enough to torment him but as he turned back to his lists they went away, not far. No, never far enough to leave him some sense of peace.
Darcy appeared at the entrance to the kitchen wearing rubber gloves and holding a mop, bucket, and an assortment of brushes and sponges. “I’ve done the ballroom, want to check?” She had that grin of accomplishment.
“No, I’ll take your word for it.” The girl worked hard and Jeff didn’t want to insult her. Besides, even a half-assed job would have done for this season. Jeff studied his lists for a moment. “I need to repaint the walls in the shared bath as well as seal around the tub and sink for rooms ten and eleven. Would scrub those walls and areas now? I know it’s asking a lot of you but I’d be thankful. I need to go to town and pick up some paint and other supplies. I’ll be back in two hours. Need anything?”
“How about another bottle of Clorox and some more oil soap? I’m close to being out.”
“Sure thing. See you in two.”
The old truck seemed to take forever to clime the grade to the hotel, the engine was huffing and puffing like a fat athlete out of training and not likely to see the vim and vigor of youth in this world again. Year ago Jeff would curse the vehicle for its perceived shortcomings. Now he excused to truck for its poor showing by saying, “At least it’s paid for.” He parked the truck around by the back entrance and started unloading the bed. Several five gallon buckets of paint were in the bed along with a cardboard box of electrical and plumbing materials. Darcy surprised him by coming out the back door and grabbing one of the buckets of paint. “Let me take that. Why don’t you take the box into the kitchen for me?”
She just smiled and said, “Ok.”
Jeff hoisted a bucket of paint in each hand and made his way to the kitchen. Then he returned to the truck for the third bucket. Each year the ritual was the same, new paint cut with water to stretch it out. As long as the walls were clean the thinned paint would look presentable and would not have to be removed for five years. He always did the paint removal in the spring when the windows could be left open longer to remove any chemical smell. There were a few hours of daylight left, that would reduce the need for electricity, keep it to a bare minimum. “I wonder how handy she is with a paint roller? I’ll ask.”
He found Darcy in the pantry moping the floor and wiping the walls with a solution of water and borax. It was her idea, said it kept the cockroaches to a minimum. This girl has common sense, he thought. “Hey Darcy, ever do any painting with a roller?”
“Sure, what me to help?” was her answer. He liked the way she always had a smile on her face. Not a big grin but that pleasant smile that reassured him all was well in her world. “If only I were ten years younger.” the words escaped from his lips. His face turned red at the prospect that she has heard him. Instead she merely smiled and finished what she was doing.
Jeff was in the kitchen with one bucket of paint opened. He hard poured half of its contents into another five gallon container and was now adding water to both buckets. Then he poured about a gallon of water in each bucket and was mixing the one using a drill and metal rod with a spiral on the end. Jeff transferred some of the contents to a gallon bucket then grabbed a tray, a brush, and two rollers. Darcy followed him up to room nine. The paint was quickly poured out a little at a time as the two worked together. Jeff felt a weight lift from his shoulders as they refreshed to walls in the bathroom and in both suites. Her help made it possible to actually finish three suits for the afternoon. Both had sprinkles of paint on their clothes, arms, and faces. He washed her face off and she did likewise, a feeling of intimacy rose between them like a shared secret. they went back to the kitchen where Jeff washed out the rollers and the brush, then sluiced off the pan and washed out the gallon bucket. Darch had gone into the pantry and then the refrigerator. Shortly she began to cook a simple meal for the two of them. Jeff had the idea that it would be good to take one of the bottles of wine out of the cellar and split it between them. the feeling of tiredness was beginning to wash off them as if a gentle rain had caught each in the open. It felt good, Jeff thought. I feel human again. Darcy served the meal and the two ate, not as individuals, but as a couple enjoying the remains of the day.
While Darcy washed the dishes Jeff made a pot of coffee and found a quarter bottle of brandy. “It’s a nice finish to the day.” he thought. That girl is really something. I hope she comes back next year. Jeff poured the coffee and added the brandy. then he took the cups into the main salon and set them on a small table in front of a couch and upholstered chair. Darcy followed and sat on the couch. Jeff served her and then sat in the chair with his own cup. Brandy has a way of taking the edge off the evening, making conversation easier and perhaps a bit more truthful. “Darcy, when are you going back to school?” the question was innocent enough.
“I may return for the winter session, I don’t really know. I’m not sure school is right for me right now. Did ypu ever get that feeling, Jeff?”
“No, can’t say as I have. I’ve always worked here ever since I can remember. My father owned this place and left it to david and me and I have always done a lot of the work since I was sixteen. I used to dream about college but Dad never had the money and besides, he needed my help just to stay even. David use to help out but he went into the military, got married, and then found a job in New York. I don’t think he has lifted a finger in the last eight or nine years when it comes to this place.”
“What keeps you here, then?” The question seemed so natural and almost innocent that Jeff was taken aback. He breathed in and then let out his breath. “Dad had some idea about making money so he took out mortgages when the economy was growing. Now we can’t sell this place for the money owed, so I’m stuck trying to keep one step from bankers. Two bad years means foreclosure and me and David will have to make up the loss. I wish I had another option but there is none.” Jeff took a few more sips of coffee and felt the brandy expand in his oral cavity, then it hit the back of his throat and coated his esophagus on the way down.
“When I interviewed I saw you felt trapped, chained to this place. That’s why I took the job. I felt your need. silly to say that and yet it’s been a habit of mine. Being able to feel what others feel, almost able to read their minds.” Jeff gave an embarrassed look at that statement. “You’re a good man, you know. You just need a decent chance in life. I guess that fits so many people but I really feel that in you.” Her eyes were focused on her cup as she sipped the last of her coffee. “I feel a kinship with you, Jeff?”
By this time Jeff was feeling overwhelmed. The words can haltingly, almost crudely. “Look…I’m old, you know…I mean…I’m thirtyeight and your what…twenty? I mean…I know I’m the last person you should even think about. I have no future…I have nothing, really. Nothing…” His voice trailed off as if his words were the last words of a dying man.
“I know more about you than you think. I lied about my age, by the way. I always do. People like to hire the young and innocent, not someone who is twenty six and has no regular plans. In a way, we are both alike. I’m lonely for the right man just as you are for the right woman.” Darcy rose from the couch and went over to Jeff. She slid her arm around his neck and she sat on his lap and held his gaze in her eyes. “I’m your baby tonight, be my man.”