by Jo-Anne Rosen
Despite poor night vision, Nathan can make out the neon sign for the Vagabond. It towers over the motel, atop a tall, brick pylon. The shooting stars going up and down are fuzzier than they used to be.
The cabbie glances at his passenger in the rear view mirror.
“You stayed here before, mister?”
“We came every winter,” Nathan informs the driver. “Back in the sixties.”
“The neighborhood’s rougher than it used to be. You shouldn’t be out alone at night.”
“I’m too old to go out at night.”
The cabbie brings his bags into the lobby and takes the tip. “Y’all take care,” he says.
The floor feels sticky under Nathan’s rubber soled shoes. He remembers a plush carpet from their last visit ten or twelve years ago. The first time they checked in, the place was brand new. How Helen had admired its sleek, modern look, boxy and geometric with splashes of coral and aquamarine.
To his disappointment, the clerk says room 111 isn’t available.
“But I made the reservation three weeks ago.”
“Room 113 is identical.” The young man seems irritated. “Kitchenette’s on the same side.”
“My wife and I always stay in 111.”
“Look, mister, 111 is already occupied. 113 is next to the vending machines, so it’s noisy there. How about I put you in a quieter room on the other wing?”
Nathan hesitates and the clerk says gruffly, “So what’ll it be?”
“Put me in 113. I’ll take out my hearing aid and it’ll be fine.” He straightens his shoulders. It’s been a long day and he still has a phone call to make.
The clerk locks the cash register, puts the bags on a luggage trolley and they set off in silence for his room. The courtyard is landscaped with palms and other tropical foliage whose names Nathan can’t recall. The water in the pool is dark, not gleaming turquoise as it used to at night.
The room smells musty. He cranks the jalousie windows open, preferring fresh breezes to air conditioning. It’s April and not yet sultry at night, a good time for a visit to Miami. It is also school break so his granddaughter, Claire, is able to fly out from California with her son, his first great-grandchild. How strange that his youngest child, the baby of the family, is a grandmother. He hasn’t seen Dora since Helen’s funeral. Now they are both widowed.
He phones his daughter. Their conversation is, as always, perfunctory. He is more at ease with his other children, perhaps because they live close by and are therefore familiar. The way a family should be, he thinks.
Dora says she’s relieved he’s arrived safely and Claire has just called from the airport. “She has to get a rental car, Dad. She’ll call you when she gets here.”
“I’m going straight to bed,” he says. “Have her call me in the morning.”
People walk by his window, laughing and talking. He hears a door slam. He takes out his hearing aid and dentures, puts on his pajamas and climbs into bed, exhausted. Sleep overtakes him at once.
The next morning Nathan steps out with his black oak walking stick and cautiously crosses the busy intersection to the restaurant he and Helen once frequented. It’s open 24 hours now, he notes, but few customers are in evidence. Their favorite booth is available. Splendid, he thinks, and examines the menu through his magnifying glass.
"What happened to your senior specials?” he asks the waitress. She is a plump woman in a tight, powder blue nylon uniform.
“Honey, we don’t get the seniors here like we used to.”
He orders his usual, one softly poached egg and rye toast, hot tea with milk. The egg is overcooked. He’s not in any hurry, so he sends it back.
The second egg is scarcely cooked at all. He hails the waitress and sends it back again.
“Third time’s a charm, I hope,” she says, setting the third rendition of the egg before him. “How’s this one?”
“It’s perfect,” he says and tucks in.
Not until he re-crosses the intersection does Nathan notice the grotto at the corner of the building. He’s forgotten about the Vagabond’s signature grotto. Helen got a big kick out of it. She’d take new visitors around to show it off. The three bas relief, white plaster nymphs, out of focus and shadowy now, are still cavorting in their giant coral half-shell like the three graces or Venus times three, without a stitch on. Two pale blue dolphins leap from the basin toward the nymphs. But the basin is dry. He runs a hand along the rim and plaster flakes off. A fountain of water used to bubble up from the basin and cascade over the half-shell, bathing the nymphs and dolphins, night and day.
Nathan settles in poolside under an umbrella with a glass of ice water and a small cassette player. No one else is in the courtyard, except a maid pushing a cart down one of the breezeways. He dons earphones and puts an audio book in the player.
Now he has the leisure to read, but neither the vision nor the stamina. It’s retirement that wears a man down. He worked until he was 87 and, if Helen hadn’t taken sick five years ago, would be working still.
He dozes and wakes with a start when a gun shot goes off, thankfully only on the tape.
A woman is seated at a table under an umbrella halfway around the pool. She’s thumbing through a magazine and eating a sandwich.
His wife would have befriended this woman. Helen was a one-woman welcome wagon, even if she had never been in a place before in her life. Once he took her with him on a business trip to Tokyo and before he could say “Ohio,” she had charmed a room full of Japanese businessmen and carried off some lovely silk and ribbon samples. Oh, she was game for anything. She even got into the public bath with him, in the buff like everyone else in the on-sen. He laughs aloud at the memory. “How do you do, Mr. Ishikawa,” she’d said gravely, when they encountered a colleague there who had often been a guest in their home. “How do you do, Mrs. Wasserman,” Ishikawa had replied, bowing his head.
A phone rings nearby. He looks around, puzzled.
The woman reaches into a large purse and takes out one of those new-fangled portable phones. He hears a muffled one-sided conversation, and then laughter. She puts the phone back in her purse and gets up and walks toward his side of the pool. At an opening in the hedge, she hesitates and looks at him from behind dark sunglasses. Her hair is carrot red.
Nathan smiles and nods, uncertain of what to say.
“How you doing?” she asks. Her voice is husky.
He sits up straighter. “Couldn’t be better,” he tells her. “It’s a pleasure to stay at the Vagabond. We’ve been coming here for many years.”
“You’re not alone then?”
“Unfortunately, I am. My wife passed on three years ago. She’s with me in spirit though.”
He gets to his feet and walks over to her. “I’m Nathan Wasserman,” he says, offering his hand.
She takes his hand gingerly as if afraid it might break. “I’m Delia,” she murmurs. He can’t see her eyes even up close.
“Delia, pleased to meet you. You know, this place used to be a lot livelier. I wonder why there aren’t more folks out by the pool. It’s a beautiful day.”
“I bet they’re working,” she says. “Like me. I’m on my break now.”
“I assumed you were a guest, too.”
“I am, but I also work. It’s more of a residential motel now,” she explains.
“We live in a residential hotel, too. Or I do, now. It’s not a hotel in the traditional sense, though.”
“This one ain’t either.”
“I mean, there’s no check-in, no lobby. And it’s not modern like the Vagabond. My wife prefers the kitchenette here.”
Delia says gently, “You must have loved her very much.”
“Yes I did, by gash.” His voice trembles a little, he notices, and he takes in air. He doesn’t usually talk this much at one time. “Sixty-two years we were married and I tell you, it wasn’t long enough.”
“Gramps, that’s definitely not a non-smoking room you’re in. Can’t you smell it?” His granddaughter looms over him, tall and lithe in a scant bathing suit. “And there’s burn marks on the carpet.”
“I don’t mind,” he says mildly. “You know, I used to smoke a pipe, myself.”
“I loved the smell of your pipe,” she says.
While Claire talks, she keeps a close watch over her boy, who has the run of the pool. He swims like a fish, Nathan notes approvingly. But it’s a shame he hasn’t got a father on board. It’s a shame young people these days don’t give marriage a chance.
His daughter and granddaughter are two fine-looking women, he thinks. Dora is full bodied and olive skinned like Helen with the same thick hair, silver now, but glossy black when she was a girl. Claire is fair and slender like her father. He remembers his three girls — Helen, Dora and Claire —emerging dripping and laughing together from this very pool. Three beauties, they were. Three water nymphs.
Claire’s boy has a shock of red-brown hair. He’s skinny and freckled and already tall for his age. Who is the father, Nathan wonders. He’s been told but can’t remember.
Danny clambers out of the pool and pads over to the adults.
“You said there’d be other kids,” he grouses.
“Take him around the side and show him the grotto,” Nathan advises. “There’s no water in it now but otherwise it’s still intact.”
“The nymphs!” Claire exclaims. “I’d forgotten all about them.”
When they are alone he clears his throat and asks his daughter if she is comfortable enough now that she’s on her own. Did Jacques provide for her adequately?
“I’m alright, Dad.”
“If you need any help, don’t hesitate to ask me for it,” he says a little awkwardly. He’s not accustomed to talking with Dora one on one. Helen was always the buffer. And his son-in-law was so loud and boisterous, no one could get a word in. He doesn’t miss Jacques in the slightest.
“Thank you,” she murmurs. Then she asks him suddenly, “Are you okay without Mother?”
“I miss her terribly,” he says, then hesitates. “I suppose it must be difficult for you, as well? Being alone now.”
“I’m alright,” she says again, looking away.
“Have you considered coming home?”
“Home? What do you mean?”
“Dad, that’s not my home anymore, not after twenty-five years. And I’m certainly not alone here. I have lots of friends.”
“That’s not the same as family.”
“They’re like family.”
“You’d still be there, if it weren’t for Jacques,” he says wistfully. “You and Claire.”
“If it weren’t for Jacques, there’d be no Claire.”
“Of course not.”
He can’t fault her marrying for love; he’d done as much himself, only made a far better choice. He has nothing against the French. He’d grown up among them, done business with them and, heaven help him, brought Jacques Beauchemin home and introduced him to his daughter.
“It was a pity, all the same. It hurt your mother to see you go.”
“To see Claire go, you mean.”
“Not just Claire. Of course, she missed you, too.”
Dora looks startled and Nathan, a little flustered, clears his throat.
“You are our baby, after all,” he says.
Claire and Danny return, chatting excitedly.
“Why can’t a boy be a nymph, too?” he wants to know. “How come the nymphs are always girls?”
“Danny is reading the Greek myths,” Claire explains. “Dryads and naiads are tree and water nymphs and they’re always female. They’re the hand maidens to the gods. I can’t think of what the male equivalent would be.”
“I don’t know a thing about it,” Nathan admits.
“I’ve never heard of dryads and naiads,” Dora confesses.
“There’s Cupid, of course,” Claire says. “Cupid is a boy.”
“Did you like the grotto, Danny?” his grandmother asks.
“The dolphins are cool.”
“The nymphs look a little down at the heel,” Claire laughs. “One of them has a nick in her nose.”
“What a pity,” Dora murmurs.
“You may not remember this, Mum. I was embarrassed by those nymphs.”
“How come?” Danny asks.
“Somebody started calling me a water nymph and the other kids teased me.”
“Because the nymphs in the grotto are naked.”
“Your grandmother was something of a water nymph herself,” Nathan offers.
“Did Nana swim in this pool?” Claire asks. “I don’t remember.”
“Maybe not too often during the day. It was mobbed with kids.”
“What kids?” Danny demands, incredulous.
“There used to be lots of grandparents staying here and lots of grandkids visiting them,” his mother explains.
“I have photos to prove it,” Dora puts in. “I’ll show you when we get home.”
Nathan lowers himself tentatively into the pool. “It’s not as warm as it used to be,” he says to Danny. “Or I’m colder than I used to be.”
The boy grins. Then he flips over and does a hand stand, his scrawny calves waving wildly above the surface.
The old man swims the length of the pool and back while the boy watches.
“Not bad for an old codger, eh?”
“That was awesome,” Danny says politely.
Nathan peers, then waves at the woman coming out of one of the rooms.
“Delia!” he calls. “Come over and meet my family.”
“Glad to meet you folks,” she says warmly. “Four generations, that’s a fine thing to see.”
“Delia lives here,” Nathan explains. “It’s a residential motel now.”
“I’ll see y’all later,” she says and heads out to the parking lot.
Dora has been watching Room 111.
“I’ve seen three women and four or five men going in and out, and they’re all so different looking. They can’t be related. Isn’t that peculiar?”
“Oh my,” Claire murmurs. She sits quietly for a few minutes, then excuses herself and goes into the motel office.
When she returns, her face reveals nothing of what she is about to say in a lowered voice so that Danny, who is in the pool, will not hear. She has to get close to the ears of parent and grandparent, as both are hard of hearing. They listen intently.
“The Vagabond Motel, in fact, the entire neighborhood up and down Biscayne Boulevard for several miles, is a hangout for prostitutes. They rent rooms here by the hour. I must say, that’s a real sleaze ball in the office.”
Silence greets this announcement. The two women look at Nathan, whose face is impassive.
“You could stay in a motel that’s down the street from me,” Dora suggests, not for the first time ever, and he shakes his head no.
“But Dad, it takes an hour to drive up here and an hour to drive back.”
“You did it for years and never complained.”
“I didn’t, but Jacques sure did.”
“I’m not going to be chased away,” he says firmly. “I like it here well enough. In fact, it’s very peaceful. I have the entire pool as a swimming lane.”
Dora is exasperated. “And Danny has no one to play with.”
He frowns. “I am sorry about that. But I wouldn’t be comfortable anywhere else.”
“Je comprend,” Claire says and he looks at her sharply. “Nana’s here with you, isn’t she?”
“That’s right. She is.”
“She wouldn’t want you to stay here alone. It isn’t safe. I saw some tough looking guys lurking about the office. I think they’re the pimps.”
“Oh my God,” Dora breathes. “Dad, you’ve got to check out of here.”
“It’s not the same, anymore,” Claire presses on. “You can’t bring back the past. Aren’t you visiting so you can be with us?”
“Why are you women making such a fuss?” he counters. “We’re having a good time here and we’re all together. I haven’t felt in the least threatened. Have you?”
Mother and daughter look at each other, roll their eyes.
“Please bear with me one last time. I may not visit again.”
They are all quiet for a while. His daughter bows her head. Will she miss me, he wonders. We scarcely know each other.
“What would Nana think about these ladies of the night and the belles de jour?” Claire wonders aloud.
“Belles de jour?” Nathan smiles. “Are they pretty? I can’t tell.”
“Don’t they have to be?” Dora asks.
“No, Mum, not necessarily.”
“She’d get their life stories out of them,” Nathan says. “She could get a stone to talk.”
“I just want you to be careful, gramps.”
“I won’t go out at night, he assures them. “I’ll walk softly and carry a big stick.” And he brandishes the black oak cane.
He takes the girls and Danny out for dinner across the street and then they pile into the rental car to drive back to southwest Miami.
“Think about it some more, Dad,” Dora urges before leaving. “It would be easier if we could all be closer.”
She’s right, he knows. But he can’t pack up and leave the Vagabond, any more than he could abandon the apartment where he and Helen had lived so many years. He will have to be carted out on a guerney. He walks slowly around the courtyard in early evening, thinking about his wife and their life together.
Weary, he sinks into a lounge chair. The heat of day lingers like a light blanket, comfortable and no longer oppressive. He dozes.
When he opens his eyes again, Helen is seated on a nearby chair. She leans over him smiling. He can smell the lilac scent she always wears.
He reaches for her. “How I’ve missed you, darling girl.”
“I’ll stay a while.” She strokes his hand.
In the twilight and with his eyes clouded and tearing up again, her lovely face is indistinct.
“Stay forever,” he tells her.
“Are you alright, Nathan?”
She never calls him Nathan. Confused, he struggles to sit up.
“We are lodged in a house of ill repute,” he manages to say. “What do you think about that, dear?
Helen’s laughter peels out like bells tinkling. What had he said that was funny? Her face flickers near his, strangely doubled. He blinks several times.
“If you’re happy here, it’s fine to be here,” she says softly.
“Couldn’t be happier,” he assures her.
He remembers then what Helen had said about Mr. Ishikawa’s girlfriend. They had been introduced to her in the on-sen. She was a geisha.
“I’ve never seen him so happy.”
“But he has to pay her,” he’d huffed.
“He’s happy,” she’d repeated. “Nothing else matters.”
“Are you alright?” she asks again.
“Got a headache, is all.”
“Maybe you’re dehydrated. Drink this.” She puts a water bottle in his hand, opens the top for him. He drinks thirstily, and looks at her again. Her face is in focus now, more or less. Her eyes are dark pools.
“Delia,” he says. “I thought...”
“I know. You must’ve woke up from a dream.”
“It was a beautiful dream.”
She nods, smiling. “So are you moving out of our house of ill repute?”
“No, I’m staying on.”
“You’re staying?” She seems surprised.
“I’m safe here, aren’t I?”
“Oh, sure, you’ll be just fine.”
“What about you? Will you be fine?” he asks her.
She shrugs. “It’s a good enough living. I got three kids. No one’s helping me.”
“Three. Who takes care of them,” he hesitates. “While you work?”
“The oldest girl is old enough now, twelve. I don’t need a sitter no more.”
“And the young ones?”
“They’re boys, eight and nine.”
He ponders this. “Any chance your boys could play in the pool with my great-grandson. My granddaughter would keep an eye on them.”
She smiles thinly. “The management won’t go for that.”
“I can handle the management,” he says. “I still know how to get things done.”
She shrugs. “I know what they’re going to say. Everyone’ll want to do it, the hookers, the maids. We’re not running no nursery school is what they’ll say. Our insurance won’t cover it.”
“Can your boys swim?
“Oh, sure. They’d have a ball in that pool.”
“I’ll get to work on it in the morning. I’ll make it worth your while.”
“You do that,” she says, but doesn’t sound convinced.
“If only we were in Japan,” he sighs. “You’d be a geisha. It’s an honorable profession. Neither you nor your children would be excluded from the public baths.”
She laughs again, a deep comfortable rumble. “Maybe I should relocate.”
Before she leaves, he pulls the wallet out of his back pocket and peels off a fifty-dollar bill.”
“Take the night off,” he tells her. “Do something special with your kids.”
“Alright, I will.” Her smile is brilliant now.
“I don’t want to see you back here tonight.”
“Thank you,” she says. “You’re a prince.”
He watches her go out to the parking lot and drive away.
Alone, Nathan sits in a deck chair by the pool while the sky darkens. How he’d love to pull this off, not only for the boy’s sake. Helen would be so pleased. It may not be possible, though. The clerks must all be surly and perhaps Delia is humoring him. She might come back to the motel after he’s asleep to turn a few more tricks. She might not want her children anywhere near the Vagabond. Claire and Dora might not bring Danny back here.
A spasm of doubt grips him momentarily. It’s like grief and heartburn combined, and then it passes. He sits up straighter.
“I won’t take no for an answer,” he promises Helen. “Why shouldn’t children use an unused swimming pool?”
He stays outside a little longer, waiting for the neon sign to light up so he can watch the stars shoot up and down again.