Sunday, January 4, 2009

Rats From a Sinking Ship (short story)

Currently, Brendan and I are putting together a book of short stories. I'll post a couple of excerpts from the book and continue to keep you updated.

Rats From a Sinking Ship

She lived on the top story of the Nine Story hotel; which was floor five, not nine. It was early afternoon because Columbo was on television. Mandy liked this show because she thought Peter Falk was the ultimate gumshoe and she enjoyed watching his glass eye roll around while he bashfully worked his way through an interrogation. At the beginning of the third season of Golden Girls, Mandy’s visa had disappeared She now found herself living in the Nine, cleaning the rooms in the early morning during game shows, finishing up in time to see her afternoon soaps.
Her real name was not Mandy, but Mandarin, like the orange. As she dressed to begin her shift, she found the toe of her wool sock chewed out. Her big toe stared up at her from her gray clad foot, pink and venerable. This had been her last pair of intact socks.
Three years ago, Mandy had come to the United States from Romania with one suitcase. In her jacket pocket had been an envelope full of changed bills and in her suitcase, three sweaters, two white shirts, a skirt and two pair of pants, a pair of boots, and a blank notebook. She had wanted to write the great American novel without knowing a word of English. After sitting in front of a television for an entire night, Mandy realized the novel lay on the screen between news sweeps and the woes of complicated love affairs. She quickly filled up her notebook, front and back and the margins, with stories of long lost siblings, evil twins, unrequited love, house fires, and mystery babies. When she had gone back to read what she had written, whole pages had been chewed from the binding, slowly disappearing every day until the notebook remained an empty cover.
As the wheel on Price is Right turned, Mandy walked out of the door and down the hall to the housekeeping closet. The toile wallpaper was interrupted every seven steps by a heavy wooden door gilded with a number. The wall scones buzzed, casting an anemic, yellow light over the hallway. She would have been more distraught over the loss of her work in progress if it hadn’t happened before. The vanishing visa was only the first indication that it had followed her. Sometimes she saw it in the hallway, or in guests’ rooms, staring at her with beady, red eyes.
Pushing the cleaning cart down the hallway and into the elevator, she checked her watch. Married With Children would begin in four hours, giving her plenty of time to clean the bottom two floors of the hotel. As the doors open Mandy lowered her eyes to the floor, avoiding the glance of the hotel manager, Mr. McFadden. “Good morning, Mandy,” he said, quietly. “He…llo,” she replied, hesitantly, tripping over her tongue and shoelace at the same time. She grabbed the handle of the cart, catching herself and leaving a raspberry on her knee. Mandy tried to hide her embarrassment by mumbling to herself in Romanian and smoothing out her skirt. Before McFadden could say another word, she was already hurriedly pushing her cart down the hallway nervously pushing her hair back behind her ears. In another life, McFadden would be perched on horseback wearing shining riding boots with a deep scar on his face, acting as the silent general of an army. This was not to say he was ruthless, but immediately intimidating to the enemy. So much so that their Cavalry would drop dead at the very sight of him. Halfway down the hall, Mandy saw it sitting beside Room 106 flashing its long yellow teeth at her beneath its whiskers.
Mandarin had been seeing the rat since she was very young. The first time was during a particularly cold winter that produced countless blankets of snow on the ground. Her brother and she had separate rooms at this point and each had their own space heaters to keep their rooms warm. Mandarin would sit up at night and watch the snow line creep closer and closer to her windowsill. One evening while hanging up paper snowflakes, she saw the rat sitting on her desk. It was about the size of a small kitten and white as the ground outside; two small, red eyes set deep in its pointed face. She had not been threatened, disgusted, or even afraid of the rat. In fact, she thought it was very pretty. It would sit on her desk with its tail delicately curled as she read or played with her dolls. Mandarin tried to show the rat to her older brother but by the time she managed to drag him into her room, the rat was gone. Eventually she decided that the rat only liked her and was afraid of the rest of her family. She never told her parents. They would only kill the rat or chase her special friend out of the house.
None of the special cleaners used by the hotel were on TV commercials. These cleaners were in large, white bottles prefaced with INDUSTRIAL. Mandy had found out through several trials that only wearing rubber gloves would keep the cleaners from staining her skin and fingernails, and prevent the tips from turning pink and burning when she touched her face or arms. The first three rooms of the first floor yielded no tips but plenty of cigarettes in the ashtrays and disheveled bedding. She carefully gathered their dirty laundry in the service sacks to do later between the six o clock news and her favorite prime time shows. Mandy was careful to never touch the bedside tables, especially the drawers. Guests kept their valuables next to the Bibles. Keeping away from the guests’ personal items meant that Mandy never had to feel remotely responsible if anything disappeared. The last thing she needed was to get fired or attract the attention of the police. Without her visa, she would be deported.
A couple of weeks after Christmas, snow continued to fall. She had an easier time falling asleep knowing that her rat friend was watching her from her desk or sometimes her dresser. One morning she woke up freezing in her bed. The heater wasn’t on. Mandarin wrapped herself in her blankets and looked at the heater. The power chord was chewed in two. When she showed her parents, her brother mentioned that she had been saying she had a pet rat in her room. Mandarin was punished for not telling her parents sooner. When she was sent to bed early, the rat would stare at her from the desk, flashing his teeth and sneering until she turned away.
After her shift, Mandy sat in her room on the end of her bed with a TV tray perched on her lap. Her microwaved dinner oozed and bubbled in its plastic container until she punched through the condensation on its saran wrap cover. Mandy liked to eat her dessert first; tonight, delicately eating a soggy, cardboard brownie. She smiled between bites as the laugh track from Three’s Company peeled from the television. Her feet dangled just above the floor, her exposed big toe tickled by the fibers of the carpet. This was her favorite part of the day. The cleaning solutions wiped from her hands and a clean set of clothes that didn’t emanate ammonia. After she finished eating, Mandy would lay in bed and watch until the national anthem played and the station ended their broadcasts for the evening. Only then could she sleep peacefully. With the covers over her, she turned off the light and lay in bed, trying to ignore the small shadow sitting atop the TV.
On Wednesday, a watch disappeared from Room 206. On Thursday, a set of earrings went missing in Room 104. Friday yielded a total of ninety-six dollars missing from two rooms on the second floor. Normally this wouldn’t bother Mandy if all the rooms hadn’t been on her two assigned floors and if she hadn’t been the only maid on duty that week. McFadden tried to assure the guests that they had simply misplaced their items, but only when another large sum of money was reported missing did he call Mandy into his office. The manager’s office was covered in framed pictures of famous movie actors and actresses, pictures of the founders of the hotel, and McFadden on trips with his family. His desk chair was high backed and made of worn leather. When he sat in it, Mandy thought of Napoleon on his throne, the hotel register mirroring battle plans. McFadden kept his hands laced under his chin as he rested his elbows on the desk. “Mandy,” he said, slowly, “There seems to be a wave of misplaced items on your floors. You’ve been here for…is it three years now? I’ve been telling the guests that you are a hard worker and very honest, which you are, but it is becoming increasingly harder to defend you when items continue to disappear. Do you understand what I’m saying?” Mandy shook her head. She kept the hem of her skirt stretched tightly between her wringing hands. It was hard for her to look at McFadden when his expression was so grave. “Mandy, have you been stealing from the guests? Taking their things?” She shook her head again, biting her lip. “I need to hear you say that you understand, Mandy,” McFadden said, furrowing his brow. Taking a deep breath, Mandy whispered, “I do not…take. From people.”
The manager knew that Mandy could not understand English and because he knew this, he asked to look in her room. As they stood together in the elevator, riding to the fifth floor, Mandy begin to cry quietly. The hallway seemed to stretch miles as they walked to her room and McFadden unlocked the door. Mandy had left the TV on; when she came home it was someone to greet her. As the manager kneeled and looked under her bed, Peter Falk pointed his finger at a cornered, murderous husband. “Isn’t that what happened, eh? You killed her. Took her money and left her on the floor while you sat on a beach in the Caribbean?” Mandy snapped back to reality as McFadden emerged from under the hems of her comforter, pulling a gnawed shoebox out from under the bed. The box was full of torn scraps of notebook paper, peppered with bits of legal yellow; arranged lovingly in the center were the missing pieces of jewelry, the watch, and two wallets from guests in the hotel.
“Oh, Mandy,” McFadden said, shaking his head. As she stared in horror at the box, she glanced at her bed; the rat perched on the floral comforter sneering up at her. Mandy began crying hysterically and pointing at the bed, screaming in Romanian. The manager grabbed her arms trying to comfort her, looking from her wretched face to the bed. “I don’t know what you’re saying! I don’t see what you’re talking about!” She began miming erratically, forming mouse ears with fists and imitating the rat’s sneer. McFadden finally lost his patience and clutched Mandy’s shoulders as she continued to cry. “Mandy, I’m sorry but I cannot continue to let you work in this hotel. Tomorrow I expect you to have your things packed and out of this room. I’m sorry, but we cannot tolerate theft.” He picked up her room keys as he walked out of the door, leaving Mandy sobbing on the floor beneath the gaze of the white rat.
That night, Mandy sat at the edge of her bed without her TV dinner. The glow from the television illuminated her puffy eyes and red face. The canned laughter from the sitcom did nothing to cheer her up, but instead mocked her. They were all laughing at her misfortune. Mandy tried to focus on the show but couldn’t without her eyes falling to the now packed suitcase on the floor. As the theme to The Jeffersons began, the sound cut out and was replaced by white noise; the screen now filled with static snow. She violently pushed the buttons on the remote with no change. The sound filled the room, soon accompanied by Mandy’s sobs. On the windowsill the rat sat illuminated by the static. As Mandy stared at the rodent she felt her anger growing as she recounted the numerous times this vermin had ruined her, bringing upon her endless misery. Enraged, she threw open her own bedside drawer and took out the hardbound Bible. Mandy hurled the book at the rat, missing the animal and breaking the window, the bible falling to the sidewalk below and the winter air filling the room.

1 comment:

Brendan L. Spengler said...

"Currently, Brendan and I are putting together a book of short stories."
We are? I mean, oh yeah, we are.
Let me be the first to say that this story about Rats is terrific.