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I saw her that night. She came in with a big brown suitcase. Poor little thing, tugging that monster behind her. I was over dusting one of the lounge’s coffee tables. She had on some jean capris and a white blouse. It had some frills on it, but the shirt was so short, even on her, that it didn’t quite reach the top of her capris. Her blonde hair was feathered around her face and held back by a thin little headband. Such a peaky little thing. I hope she’d stay a while. We’d put some meat on those bones of hers.
“I’d like a room, please.” Her voice was meek and small. Hmm, doesn’t look like she’s been traveling all day, I thought to myself. Betty, behind the counter, turns around and grabs a key. I heard that little jingle of it against its placard as she handed it to the new visitor.
“How long will you be staying, Miss,” asked Betty.
“I don’t know. As long as I can, I guess.” Caroline is all I could think of when that girl spoke.
I motioned for Benji, the bellhop, who was standing over by the bar smoking his evening cigarette, to help her with her bag. He set it into the ashtray, smothering the lit end, and walked over with a smile on his face to help the poor little thing.
“So, where you from?” They went upstairs and I continued working, sort of. I could not stop thinking about my daughter, Caroline.
She was here for two days, when I ran into her on my way to clean one of the rooms. “Hello, dear. Enjoying your stay?”
She jumped when I spoke. Tucking her hair behind her ear, she nodded. I was about to say something else to her, but she scurried off before I could.
The girl was so shy, and I remembered when Caroline stopped talking to her friends, when she stopped talking to me - her own mother. She was scared and thought I was like her father. That girl was just like my Caroline; in looks, the way she carried herself, and even the sound of her voice. If I didn’t know better, I would think that Caroline had come back, but that couldn’t be. I’d have to be dead.
I was sweeping in the entrance way when she came walking in. She had been sitting outside watching the cars on the highway speed past without a second thought.
“Good afternoon. Counting the red cars?” I remember Caroline would play that game… when I still had her.
“Mommy,” she said once, at six years old. “I counted 144 red cars. That’s the square number of 12!” Always my bright child, Caroline.
The girl didn’t even answer that time. Well, I thought, I will get her to talk sometime. I have to. I don’t want another Caroline to get pushed down again.
It was later that night that I followed Benji over to the bar, where he lit his cigarette, and put it between his lips. He puffed a minute and then took it out to talk. “She’s off,” he says.
“Elaborate, Benji. Who, what, where?”
“That blonde guest that’s been around here for a few days. She don’t talk much, and she’s really careful. I don’t know. It’s almost as if she thinks everything she touches is about to bite her hand off.”
“Really? What did you two talk about when you carried her bag?”
“All I got was that she don’t live too far from here. She’s also afraid of people.”
“How so,” I asked as I pulled out my cigarette case and reached for one myself. As Benji lit it, he continued to talk.
“Well, I came to carry her bag, and it’s almost as if she didn’t want help. Then, when we walked down the hallway, ‘course I didn’t know which room to go to, but she let me lead the way anyway. She made sure she stayed just out of arms reach from me, like she thought I would throw her on the bed and rape her on the spot once I dropped the bag in her room.”
“How well did she tip?”
He puffed a bit on his cigarette and then said, “She didn’t ,but at the same time she looked sorry for it. I don’t know, Pinky. I think something has happened to her.”
“Yes, Benji, I think so too.” Just like Caroline.
Another morning came, and I was helping Betty put out the complementary breakfast. There were five tables in the room, and only two of them had people at them. Business was slow, as usual. A man in a collared shirt kept flicking down his newspapers to look at the girl. She didn’t seem to be aware of it, but the small hunch in her shoulders made her look as if she was bracing for a hit.
I went into the kitchen. Coming out, I scanned the room. There was only one table inhabited, but there were two people at it. The man had gotten up and moved to sit next to the girl. He was talking to her, and she was panicking, it seemed. The eggs on my tray were hot and fried. The best the South could offer. Of course, I don’t think anybody likes them in their lap. Mr. Newspaper-flicking-table-moving-personal-space-bubble-abusing, certainly didn’t.
“Oh! I’m so sorry, young man. Here let me just clean you up.” That was a lie. While I was ‘cleaning’ him up, I ‘accidentally’ smashed all the yolks in the process. His blue jeans turned into a soppy greenish mixture with yellow chunks. He stormed off muttering to himself about service.
“Thank you.” It was the girl, my second Caroline, that spoke up. I smiled.
“Any time dear. Trust me, I’ve been in the same boat. It ain’t so fun when no one is there to help.” From then on, things were a bit different. She would stop in the halls and talk with me. Over the next few days, we talked about the weather, and the business, and the government, but I wanted to know about her.
It was two afternoons since that incident at breakfast that I was cleaning some of the rooms. It was in room 207 where I came across her. She was sitting on her bed with her knees pulled up to her chest as she hugged herself. Her face was wet. It was a pitiful sight. She, that tiny young thing, sunk into the immense and irrational number of over-fluffed pillows.
“Knock, knock,” I said. She looked up, her eyes wide, expectant, and fearful. “Mind if I come in, dear? I’ve just got to do a little sprucing up of the place.”
“I guess so.”
I pulled the feather duster from my apron waist, and began dusting the nightstand next to her. The lamp was off and the wood was cool to the touch. I went to the windows and opened the shades.
“I never did find out what you are doing here. You’ve been here about a week, and haven’t left the property.”
“I had to get away for a while. Things are pretty hectic at the house.”
“I’ve been there before, dear. I was a single mother. My baby girl, Caroline - gosh you look just like her - she would stay in the manager’s office all day until I finished working. It’s not good to be cooped up. Makes people crazy.”
“That bellhop I saw you talking to, he seems kind of crazy.”
“Good old Benji.”
“That’s his name? It seems so innocent. Honestly, I thought I was done for when he came in here with my bag.”
“Really? Oh that’s just him on the outside.” I chuckled. Looking back at the girl, I said, “Don’t bother with no man’s looks. Just listen to what they are like.”
“I wish I had known that a bit sooner though.”
“Why?” Is my Caroline gonna tell me what’s wrong now? Come on, honey. You can tell Mama what’s wrong.
“Well Ms. …,”
“Pinky, dear. Call me Pinky.”
“Okay. I don’t know, Pinky. I think there something wrong with me.”
“Oh, honey, no.” I came to sit by her on the bed.
“I mean, Danny, my husband, comes to me and I thought, finally, a gentleman. I remember when he gave me a drive home and I was thinking, please kiss me goodnight.” She made a half-hearted chuckle at this. “Guess I should have known better than to rely on girlish fantasies.” She pulled a pillow from behind her and hugged it to herself. “He seemed so nice, and I thought I was in love. So we eloped, but when we came back from Vegas and the honeymoon, everything changed. I was his wife now and had to listen to him. I had to do any and everything that he asked, no matter how awful it was.”
“What did he make you do?”
“He would drink a lot, I mean what else is beer for? But you have no idea what he is like until you actually see him intoxicated.” Her eyes were magnified by the tears that began to fall from them and her shoulders were shuddering uncontrollably. This young angel turned into something meek and little that has had everything stripped away in her prime. “He would beat me… and then rape me. When you’re in pain… and he’s- …and you’re -” Her voice wavered, and she stopped. Oh, Caroline.
“Trust me, I have been there. My Prince Charming turned out to be a frog that hopped away when I got pregnant with Caroline.”
“Oh, Pinky.” She reached out to comfort me, but I shook it away.
“You’re the one that has the problem right now. God put me here to help you… so let me.”
“I’ve lost the Danny I know and all that seemed right was just turned into mush.” She put her head in her hands. “I know my problem. I fell for the man that bought me the drink in the bar. The one that would hold the doors for me and tuck my hair behind my ear every time before he was going to kiss me. I’ve done everything wrong.” I patted her knee at this, because I didn’t know what to say. I was beginning to feel the tears brimming at my own eyes.
“No. We are all looking for our Prince Charming. Believe me, I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I’ve worn out that t-shirt.”
“What should I do?”
“What do you think?”
“Hide, run away, and never come back. Disappear, maybe in New York.”
“What will happen when you look down at that ring on your finger?”
“I don’t know.” She began to twist the gold band on the fourth finger of her left hand. She would pull it half way off and then slide it back into place.
“Honestly, I think you need to divorce him.” She took in a sharp breath as if she had been prodded in the chest with something cold. “Get rid of him. Show him that you have been hurt and he no longer has any control over you. Let him know that he never had any.”
“I can’t hurt him like that.”
“You listen to me. All he’s after is beer and proving how manly he is. You said yourself that you had fallen for the old Danny. Get rid of this one.”
“I see what you are saying.” She smiled, but I was not sure it was sincere.
I was wiping off the front desk that night. I looked up, and saw that all the keys were on their racks, even key 207. I left my rag on the desk and ran up the flight of stairs. It can’t be, I remember thinking. She couldn’t have. Room 207, I knocked on the door and got no answer. I pulled out my master key, and opened the door.
The room was empty, and the bed was made. My second Caroline had left. She left without saying good-bye, I thought. I remember berating myself. Stop it. She is not your child. She is not obligated to stay with you. She is not Caroline.
I got downstairs. I felt weak in the knees. I was getting too old for this. Sighing, I continued wiping the counter, staring at key 207. She didn’t even say good-bye. No warning, just an empty room.
Benji came over with his evening cigarette between his lips.
“She left, Benji. There’s her key on the rack.”
Benji took the cigarette from his mouth and held it between his fore and middle fingers. “She didn’t leave without saying good-bye. She came to me because she couldn’t find you.”
“She came to you?” I was shocked. I thought she was afraid of Benji. I thought she was afraid of all men.
“Yeah. She said to tell you that she’s going back to peel the green from the frog - whatever that means. She also said thanks. I don’t know what you did, Pinky, but you did something.”