Published On: Sat, Jan 25th, 2014

Hotel Saint John’s: fiction by Steve Benson (Part One)

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The Walk

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The cold wind turned Marty Tenant’s face bright pink. Invisible hands had been slapping  him in the face since he had turned the corner from Commercial Street to National Avenue.  He kept his head down as much as he could but still, the occasional snowflake would rush in  and hit his already stinging face. The Hotel Saint John’s was Marty’s destination. He  imagined that a sign at the Hotel Saint John’s would read “A warm room and  complimentary lingering death for every guest.” He meant this as a humorous thought but  instead it turned an already somber day just a little darker.

Marty wore two coats. The one on the outside was a ripped and worn Carhart coat that the shelter had given him. The one underneath was a light leather jacket; it was this one that he was planning on wearing to the job interview the next morning. Slung over Marty’s shoulder was an overstuffed back pack. Inside it was a pair of dress shoes and the best outfit he owned, recently purchased for seven dollars from the Salvation Army.

The rest of Marty’s belongings were in a locker back at the shelter. Not much though, just a beat up suitcase with a few changes of clothing and a small photo album. At one time he had more belongings in a storage locker but being homeless didn’t pay well. The storage facility auctioned off those belongings months ago for nonpayment. When Marty was feeling especially down because of his current circumstances, he would take out his suitcase and thumb through the photos. He had looked at it for half an hour before leaving the shelter that cold Sunday evening.

Marty had a job interview on the south side of town at 8am Monday morning. It was rare to get an interview this close to Christmas so Marty was doing everything he could to make sure he arrived on time and looking fresh. The last thing he wanted to do was to leave the shelter at 6am and show up at the interview looking cold, tired and wet from the weather. Instead he had decided to use what he called one of his free hotels.

Marty was an expert at finding places in Springfield where he could get a good comfortable night’s sleep for free. There had been many times in the past year that these free hotels saved him from being too hot, too cold or drenched from the rain. The bus station was a tried and true option but in this case the station wouldn’t work because it was on the opposite side of town from the interview. The mall was another option. There were back hallways that connected all of the shops and one of them had an upper storage area that he could get to by climbing a row of electric meters. Since it was Christmas Marty decided not to go to the mall, more people increased his chances of being caught. Marty had actually settled on a new idea for tonight’s free hotel, The Hotel Saint John’s.

Saint John’s Hospital was about three miles away at the moment but Marty was sure it was the perfect spot. He came up with the idea several months earlier. He had been working in the shelter’s kitchen all day and was taking a break on his bunk in the open area mens’ quarters. He was again looking through his photo album, concentrating mainly on the few photos he had of his wife. Seeing them reminded him of the last week before she died. She spent that week on the eighth floor of St. Johns hospital dying of ovarian cancer. Prior to that she spent a lot of time in the oncology day ward but lack of positive results had ended those visits. Marty spent all of that last week by her side but occasionally he would retreat to one of the waiting rooms at either end of the floor to get a couple hours of uninterrupted sleep. The waiting rooms were all but abandoned after 7pm, so he was confident that his plan would work. After coming up with the idea, he tucked it away in his mind and stumbled across it again after the interview was scheduled. Marty realized the irony that a memory of one of the factors that caused him to become homeless in the first place, might actually help him get off the street.

After Mindy’s death, a combination of medical bills and a bad economy left him with no money and no job. He sold anything of value that he owned in order to make his house payments but eventually his small two bedroom house on the north side of town went back to the bank. Neither Marty nor Mindy had family in town so his only alternative was the street with occasional stretches spent at the shelter. The shelter only allowed two week stays for single men in order to make room for people with children. Marty was such a hard worker though that they usually let him stay a month or more but he would still eventually have to leave for awhile before being allowed to rotate back in.

When he lost the house, Marty almost called his sister in Topeka for help but decided against it. He had never really had a stable family life. His mother moved them from town to town when they were young. His sister Nora moved out when she was sixteen and three years later Marty joined the Army at the age of eighteen. By the time his enlistment was up, his mother had died of a drug overdose. After that, neither Marty nor Nora seemed interested in staying in touch. Holding onto bad memories can sometimes fracture a family worse than the actual events.

As bad off as he was, Marty always managed to get by on his wits. Tonight, as he walked through the three inches of freshly fallen snow, he was actually proud of his idea of sleeping in one of the hospital waiting rooms. He knew that he’d wake up refreshed and only two blocks from his interview. After a quick sink shower and changing into his good clothes, he was confident that he would look just fine. This job meant a lot to Marty, not only because it could get him back on the right path, but also because he wasn’t sure how long he could mentally take living this way. The pressure of constantly scrounging for a place to stay or a meal was turning him into someone he did not always recognize.

The job itself was nothing to brag about. Before his wife’s death, Marty worked as phone tech support. While he was on medical leave for Mindy’s illness, his employer shipped his job off to India. Years before that, he had been a printer at a small shop on the north side of town. Monday’s interview was for a job as a printer’s assistant. It had been while since he’d done this kind of work but he was hopeful that his experience would get him the job. It did not pay much but Marty figured that after a couple months he would be able to afford a small studio apartment. From there, he would start saving until he could afford a car. Marty remembered doing all of these things fifteen years ago, after he’d left the Army. He wasn’t happy about having to do it all over again in his late thirties, but at this point was glad to have a working plan.

Twenty minutes later, Marty had worked his way up to Missouri State University. By then the snow was floating down in huge flakes. The smell of burning wood floated through the air as some of the houses in the surrounding neighborhood lit their fireplaces not so much for the warmth but for the nostalgia. The campus itself looked like a post card; untouched snow blanketed usually busy walkways and parking lots. As Marty passed the row of rental houses that lined National Street, he saw young college kids packing their cars; the last few stragglers on their way home for the Christmas break. They looked happy and excited. A girl who looked like she was maybe eighteen or nineteen was busy making a snow angel in the front yard of one of the houses while several of her girlfriends laughed from the covered porch. Next door a group of young men were having a snowball fight. Marty enjoyed watching them but at the same time it put the spotlight on his loneliness. He hadn’t known joy or friendship for a long time now. Friends from his previous life had disappeared since he’d fallen on hard times and the few acquaintances he’d made at the shelter were just that, acquaintances. It seemed to Marty that he had just been going through the motions. Taking care of his basic needs but not really living a life.

By the time Marty made it to Sunshine Street, the snow was another inch deeper and the gray sky was darkening. He waited at the crosswalk for the traffic light to turn green while the remainder of the light slowly faded from the sky. As he waited there, the Christmas decorations that lined Sunshine Street flickered on. The decorations reminded Marty of his childhood Christmases. Most of Marty’s childhood was rough, but his mother always managed to pull off a halfway decent Christmas. The best memories he had of the holidays were when his mother’s half brother, Uncle Rusty would visit.

Uncle Rusty showed up every year or two while Marty was growing up. He would mostly visit around Christmas or Thanksgiving. Rusty was a little on the short side, had wavy red hair (hence the nickname Rusty) and always had a smile on his face and a quarter in his pocket for Marty and Nora. Marty still remembered the year he showed up with a giant toy fire truck for him. The truck was eventually left behind during one of his families late night moves to avoid paying past due rent. Marty’s mother hastily planned and executed these moves which meant they left a lot of things behind.

As Marty starred at the candy cane and Christmas bulb shaped decorations that hung from each street light, he remembered how Uncle Rusty would load everyone up in his car and drive to the nicer area of whatever town they were living in to look at the Christmas lights. Uncle Rusty was like a child in an adult’s body; he seemed to be seeing everything for the first time. That excitement for life was what made Marty like him so much. Unfortunately Uncle Rusty, much like Marty’s mother, was never able to settle down. The last time Marty saw him was when he came to visit for Marty’s 16th birthday. He didn’t even come to the funeral when Marty’s mother died. Marty thought of the relationship he had with his own sister and knew that they had inherited this same distance.

The light turned green and Marty crossed as quickly as he could, considering the depth of the snow. He was now walking alongside the employee parking lot of Saint John’s; he noticed that the hospital had undergone a lot of construction since he’d been here with Mindy. Old parking lots were now new wings of the hospital and square blocks of housing were now new parking lots.

Marty walked another half block before finding himself standing at the main entrance to Saint John’s Hospital. The tall lights that lined each side of the entrance joined forces with the blowing snow to create the illusion of a white swirling tunnel that ended at the front doors of the hospital. Marty walked forward into this passageway and placed his hands on the cold brass handle.

[To be continued]

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