The North Hotel wasn’t really a hotel at all, but a flophouse. The tenants came and went. They were hiding from the Vice Lords. They were the Latin Kings. They’d been dropped off drunk by third shift cops. They were drug dealers, drug users, compulsive hoarders, amnesiacs, paranoiacs, bums, psychos, sickos. Punk rockers who came into town for shows and never left. They smoked roll-it-yourself tobacco (CHEAP) and weed (the stanky kind) and crack (big, jaggy blobs of amber. And they were the paralyzed ants.) They lived under subsidies or sold newspapers or got government checks and SNAP benefits. They watched TV all day, some of them. Others hiked to the library down North Avenue to sit alone reading newspapers in Polish, Russian, Thai, Chinese. They were old men who would die naked in their beds. They were young junkies with needle tracks on their arms like witch’s fingers. “Fireholes”—what they called the spots on their bodies where they jammed in the needles—as black and open and stinking as wintertime sewers. They were prostitutes and johns, widowers and divorcees. They were right hand men and pimps and way-down-on-the-totem-pole bookies.
And, with most of them, their minds were maimed. They took their meds or they didn’t and either way they’d sit on the couches in the lobby with long lines of drool from their chins to their chests. They’d come to confessing sins. Or they’d come to lashing out. Or they’d come to pissing themselves, little single-stream fountains in their hang-down pants, and walking quietly bowlegged up the steps to their rooms to disappear from the world for days and for weeks.
Ray, who sat at the front desk, handed out keys, monitored the alley cameras, and collected rent, watched them come and go. There were leavers and stayers. The stayers were the obviously disconnected, disengaged, disenfranchised. DIS-gusting. Mostly. They didn’t have phones as a rule, and if they did, they were those free government phones, and they were always losing them or breaking them and always changing phone numbers. And it was like they collected them, like it was a hobby. Five, six, seven of them apiece, busted useless digi-shit, but they hung onto them. Maybe these stayers thought all the phones were all going to come alive one day, magically wake up ringing with calls from the President, God, Katy Perry? The other kind, the leavers, had phones they kept, one apiece, and people they talked to, even if their talk was, “Fuck you, Ma!” Fuck you Ma was somebody, somebody out there who’d eventually open her doors again and out the tenant would go, whispered into the night, a gray rumor no one would ever hear again.
On Monday night, Ghost Girl came back to the North Hotel with a tiny yellow bird in a silver cage. Who knew her real name? Everybody called her G.G. or Gigi. Pronounced the same, the latter much fancier.
“What do you have there?” Ray asked her.
“A parakeet. His name is Tom,” Gigi said. Her voice was high, and it fractured when she came to the ends of her sentences.
Ray said, “No pets. You know this.”
“He’s only a little bird,” she said.
“If I let you have that bird, I have to let the next guy in with a Doberman.”
“Please.” This one word rang in the lobby like the sound of a single, plunked piano key. Gigi stood there, tiny, with the cage in her hand. The bird was nervous. Gigi’s eyes, huge, met Ray’s and Ray stared back. A little red flame bloomed in his heart. She had a soul.
But, “No goddammed way,” he said.
Gigi looked at the cage. The bird looked at her. She looked at Ray again, who’d turned back to the TV, and while he watched it, she unfastened the cage door’s latch. Out flew Tom. He darted and circled and she clapped her hands.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” she said.
“Tommy, Tommy, Tommy! My lovely little pet.”
“What are you talking about?” Ray said and she pointed. The bird had landed on a lampshade. His shadow was cast in black on the stucco wall behind it, a 2-D crow.
“Oh, what the fuck, why did you do that?” Ray screamed.
But Gigi laughed and clapped and climbed the steps to the fourth floor, her floor, with the empty cage. And there was Ray the rest of the night, swatting at little Tom with a broom, always missing.
In the winter, the North Hotel was freezing. In the summer, burning up. When spring slunk into town or when fall rolled through, it was anybody’s guess. The gaps beneath the window sashes in the rooms were almost an inch wide and the outside eased right in. The gaps beneath each door were bigger. Two, three inches in some rooms. The mice moved to and fro.
“Hey, your mouse came to see me last night,” somebody’d say.
“What’d he look like?” somebody else would answer.
“Black, real dark. Like me.”
“That ain’t mine. Mine’s silver. When you look at him in the light, I’ll be goddammed if he ain’t pure silver. Besides, mine don’t go no place without his family no way.”
People shoved towels under the doors and dirty laundry or slabs of cardboard in the windows. Mousetraps slapping at night, especially when it got cold, was a little, percussive symphony. And when the roaches came for the mouse bodies, the stamping on the floorboards—smash, smash, smash!—was the symphony’s second movement.
Gigi’s room was austere. The only one who knew that was Adam the Polack. Adam was the maintenance man and he lived at the North Hotel too. On Tuesday night, she knocked on his door.
“What you want?” he shouted.
“I have a leaky faucet,” she whispered into the doorjamb.
“Wait till tomorrow.”
“It’s really leaking.” Her voice was loud in an instant, a static tinged wail, like a keening for the faucet, the fixture, all the rusting, doomed pipes in the entire building. Adam answered the door in his t-shirt and suspenders, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth.
“Oh,” he said, and his eyes popped wide, “It’s you,” and he smiled, breathed smoke out through lips cast to one side, fumbled for a shirt in the heap on the dresser, and began to button furiously. She smiled back.
“What problem you have, now? In your room?” Adam said.
“My faucet. Drip, drip, drip. It’s kind of driving me crazy.”
Gigi’s t-shirt was hanging from her shoulders like a flag with no wind to unfurl it. Her jeans were straight, plain. She was small enough to wear teenage boy sizes.
“Okay. Okay. I come up now.”
She let Adam in, pushed the door shut with both tiny, white hands and Adam saw: A twin bed with no sheets. The walls of the room were white, the crown molding black. A little radio sat on the windowsill playing classical. That was all. It was the music that made him, just for mere seconds, think thoughts that normally resided in certain shadows of his memory, places he’d put them so they wouldn’t get sunburned.
“How long you live here?”
“Five years I think,” she said.
“You decorate maybe? Pictures or something?”
Maybe she didn’t hear him. Or maybe she didn’t care about decorations, but what woman doesn’t care about decorations, even here? Who knows what she cares about, but it would be nice to know. She pointed to the little sink, an ancient porcelain basin on skinny legs jutting from the wall. There were two faucets, one hot, one cold, and from the “cold” the water plopped down in a beat. The sound behind it was the faint but immutable tide of the music, another kind of dream. Adam, on a whim, walked to the radio and turned up the volume all the way. The violas, the violins, the cellos rattled and pinged between the plaster walls.
“I show you how to dance,” Adam said and took her hand in his. Soft, cold, her fingers firm. He slid his other hand around her waist, hard as a flagpole, and brought her close—but not all the way. He stepped out with his right foot. What followed were more steps, perfect steps, a waltz in perfect time to the perfect music. Adam smiled down upon the pale woman, whose eyes radiated light and glee and love and the shadowed things were indeed enormous, the snow-capped Tatras half-wooded with beech and spruce. Tumbling rivers there in the springtime. Buck red deer bellowing during the rut. So beautiful. But he dared only to look. Never to feel.
Here came Danny on Wednesday night, in the door with his bike up on its back wheel, a bike Ray had never seen before. The North Hotel said one bike per person, and it had to be kept in the storage room in the basement. Danny had probably seven or eight bikes and they were all in his room.
“Fuck you and your bikes,” Ray said.
Danny cackled a little grumph laugh, put his hand to his heart and said, “This is how I get around.”
“Try the damn CTA.”
“I don’t like the bus. I don’t like trains. I don’t like them. That’s why I ride.”
“Ride some place else.”
“What?” Danny was playing dumb. It’s what he always played.
In came Gigi, and Danny and Ray got quiet. She passed. Without a look, without a sound. When she was on the elevator and the doors had slammed closed, Danny said, “Hi, Ghost Girl. Bye, Ghost Girl.”
Ray fumbled with a ring of keys on the desk.
Danny said, “How long she been living here?”
“She must have been here a few years. She was here when I moved in. What’s she do? Does she do anything?”
“Okay,” Danny said, palms up and backing away, “okay.”
“Take your bike out back and throw it in the dumpster,” Ray said.
On Thursday, Ray added free coffee to the North Hotel’s extremely short list of amenities. Ray brewed it at 6AM in an old coffee maker he’d found in an alley behind a diner. It was one hell of a find. The cords weren’t frayed, the carafe wasn’t cracked anywhere. He carried it home under his arm on the bus and took it back into Adam’s workroom, way in the back of the hotel. With an old toothbrush, he scoured its metal until it shined, then polished it and polished it until it looked brand new. Of course he disinfected the carafe with bleach. The thing took standard filters you could find at Aldi, so he bought a bunch and bought a couple of tubs of Maxwell House. They’d love him. And when they said, “Where’d the coffee come from?” he’d say, “From me,” and then, way down in the dungeon of his soul, he’d let in a dusty, piercing beam of light.
Adam was the first to pour some coffee. It was about 6:15 AM. Ray watched from the front desk. Adam took a sip.
“Tastes like shit.”
“It does not.”
“Don’t brew shit, I say something different.” Adam turned back to his workroom.
“Fuck you, Polish asshole,” Ray mumbled.
Next came Danny off the elevator, one hand on the saddle of his bike.
“Get that shit out of here,” Ray said, “where the hell are you going so early anyway?”
“I got class,” Danny said, “class.”
“What class are you in, growing a fucking pair of ears and following the rules class?”
“That coffee ain’t for you,” Ray said.
Danny turned up a Styrofoam cup and poured, steam swirling up around his hand.
“What do you say, Ray?”
“I made the coffee. So, put it down. I don’t want you to have any.”
“What, you want me to pour it back?”
Just as Ray was about to say, “Hell yes,” along came Gigi again, silent and barefooted, scrawls of blue veins rippling over the tendons in her feet. She noticed the coffee and smiled a small, weak smile. Danny watched her, and Ray, who had been leaning on the front desk, stood up straight and watched her too. She poured herself a cup, heaped in sugar and creamer, then gave it a swirl with the spoon. In came Adam again.
“Ray, you—” Adam started, but when he saw Gigi, her long white hair hanging down her back, he stopped. “Oh, good morning,” he said, right past Danny.
“Good morning,” she said right back.
“I wish you a pleasant day, my girl,” Adam smiled so big it put dark crinkles in the creamy skin of his face.
“You too. My boy,” she said, and when she said, ‘my boy’ she said it in a teasing little accent.
Adam laughed a low, throaty laugh. Then she was gone into the elevator. Adam watched the elevator doors close, and Danny and Ray watched Adam. Finally, Ray said, “What’d you want, Adam?”
“Nevermind. I forget,” he said.
When Adam was gone, Danny said, “Now, what the fuck was that about?”
“You don’t think they’re—the two of them are, you know,” Danny said, but Ray cut him off. “Go to your class, or whatever it is.”
“Yeah, class. GED class, Ray.”
“Panhandling 101. No, wait, you probably teach that class.”
On Friday, a man was killed. Somebody who owed somebody something. Didn’t they all owe somebody something? A new tenant up on the third floor. Later, neighbors said they heard some hollering then a quick dull crack, just one, and then hurried footsteps through the hall—not running, but like fast walking. Somebody came down and told Ray.
“Somebody got shot upstairs.”
“What?” Ray said.
“Boy’s face come off.”
“Did you call the cops?”
“Why the fuck didn’t—nevermind.”
The door to the room was half opened, and the lights were all on, the ceiling light and a couple of lamps, probably with bulbs in them that had too much wattage for the little fixtures. The hot glare spilled into the dim hallway and the whole thing looked like a showpiece, a diorama, something Ray’d have made in junior high. A lot of people were standing in the hallway, zombie-folk in ratty sweatpants, their mouths turned down in confused frowns. A couple were old women, both bald, pinching their robes shut like this was the 1950s, but come to think of it good, because who wanted to see inside those robes. Everybody was moaning. “Ray, Ray, who did it Ray. Ray, Ray, are we all going to be okay? Ray, Ray, help us Ray.”
“Everybody get back to your rooms. Get the fuck away. Back up. Out. Shoo!”
It did look like the face had come off or was at least coming off. There was a blackish red hole in the boy’s chin—boy, because he was probably twenty, twenty one—from which a little blood trickle had slipped down the neck and dove to the carpet. Where the bullet came out, right above the forehead, was a bigger hole, about baseball sized. The bullet had torn the skin away from the skull in all directions, leaving a stiff flap of it hanging over the boy’s eyes like the brim of a ball cap. On the ceiling and wall, it looked like somebody had been messing with a malfunctioning airbrush. Red spray all over.
“Well this shit will take weeks to clean up.” Ray squinted and turned around in the light, hands on his hips.
“Ray, Ray, what happened?” Danny was in the doorway.
“Go the fuck back to your room, asshole.”
Ray was trying to block the view of the room with his little body, and Danny was trying to peek over Ray’s shoulder.
“What happened?” Danny said.
“I don’t know yet.”
“Is it bad?”
“Yeah,” he said, stepping aside abruptly, “It’s bad.”
“Danny,” Ray said, and Danny looked at him with wide eyes.
“We aren’t pals, you know that right? We’re not buddies? Not friends?”
“I just wanted to make sure you were clear on that.”
He shoved Danny back and shut the door, then waved his arms around and hollered and pretty soon everybody else scattered back to their rooms.
On Saturday, nothing happened.
Sunday morning broke overcast and rainy. Drippy more like it. Water hung in the air outside in misted sheets. It made the sidewalks even grayer. It beaded up on the awning over the front door of the North Hotel and rolled off, splatting down on the sidewalk in a brownish red square on the concrete underneath. Countless days like this had dripped and drooled off the awning, so it looked like they’d rolled out a carpet of rust for all the tenants.
“Rain not stop until Tuesday,” Adam said.
“Supposed to get worse between now and then,” Ray said. His feet were up on the desk, and he was thumbing through a Penthouse that had come in the mail for somebody else.
“When they come clean up the room?” Adam said.
“Cleanup crew is supposed to be here today. Earliest they could come. I guess a lot of people got their brains splatted out this weekend.”
“I want to patch plaster in there.”
“You got a haz-mat suit? No? Then hold your horses.”
Adam sipped coffee and kept staring out the front door of the hotel at the parking lot across the street. Sip, stare. Sip, stare. Cars shot past in blurs and streaks, their wet tires on the black-slick asphalt making high-pitched peeling sounds.
“Maybe we have sun in the middle of the week.” Adam shrugged his shoulders.
“Maybe. Wow, check this out,” Ray said, but he didn’t move and didn’t show Adam the magazine.
“Maybe weatherman is wrong. WGN is always wrong on weather.”
“Shit. If I tried to bend like that, I think my legs would just snap right off.”
“The sun might come before the middle of the week.” Sip, stare, sip, stare.
The front door burst open, and in came Danny, leading his bike by the handlebars. Water fell from his shoulders like molted scales and his bike tires squeaked. Little silver dots of water clung to the scraggly beard around his mouth.
“Welcome home, fat ass,” Ray said without looking up.
“Fuck you,” Danny said.
“You get water all over the floor, Danny. I mop just now. Look.”
“Bad day to mop. It’s raining. It’s raining.” Danny was pointing outside.
“He can see it’s raining,” Ray said, “he’s Polish, not a moron.”
“Ooh, let me get a look,” Danny said, spying the magazine in Ray’s hands.
“I think it’s mine. Gimmee my magazine.”
Ray held up the side of the magazine with the postage. The person to whom it was addressed was, “Jimmy Cleveland.”
“You get bike upstairs! Dripping, dripping.”
“I’m going. Let me borrow it when you’re done, Ray.”
And then the elevator doors slid open. Gigi was inside and stayed inside until the doors almost reclosed, but slipped out as they banged shut behind her. She was completely naked. Her skin white as talc. All three men saw her, but it was like she didn’t see them. Her stiff little body turned toward the front door. When she finally walked, her bony arms glided—didn’t swing—at her sides, her steps, barefoot, utterly silent on the tile. All that could be heard then was the rain outside. Adam’s eyebrows, fuzzy arches, shot upward. Ray kicked his feet off the desk, sat up, and gasped. And Danny’s jaw opened and shut, opened and shut, like he wanted to say something, changed his mind, wanted to speak, then didn’t. She stepped outside under the awning. Rain fell all around her. Then she turned south and disappeared.
“Oh my—” Danny started, glancing at Adam, then Ray. He stifled a laugh.
“Watch her. Don’t let her get away. Where’s she going?” Ray said.
Adam shoved his way out the front door and stood there under the awning. Danny and Ray heard him holler her name, a mournful yowl, a twisted screech.
Paul Luikart is a student in Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in creative writing program. His work has appeared previously in Chicago Quarterly Review and Curbside Splendor, and is forthcoming in Barrelhouse and Yalobusha Review. Recently, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He and his wife are expecting their second daughter in November. Their first daughter loves to read and he likes to think he had something to do with that.