Last weekend I gave you in two parts the first chapter of an ancient piece of writing I had rediscovered and dictated into digital form, The Book of Seasons. We got almost no response (sorry, Dave, I realize you did respond) and our daily hits fell almost into the single digits on Sunday. But it’s back! Today and tomorrow only! Chapter 2 from The Book of Seasons…
I wish I had a photo of the Hotel Allison to spice up the appearance of the document, but not everything is available even with a Google search. However, we’ll try a few images just for excitement. (And I did listen to the Grateful Dead album in my days at the Allison in 1974. I also recall waxing sentimental on weekends hearing—brace yourselves for this one—“Please Come to Boston” on the radio. That and Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff” were big hits that autumn into winter.)
The Book of Seasons
As I ate I looked him over fairly closely. He was very old. By that time I was already proficient about old age, at least of a certain sort.
The Allison is a kind of social dumping ground for old people, in which a lot of lonely men and women wander through the dreary ends of their lives, cigarettes smoldering constantly between stiff fingers. Residential hotels are common in every city — somewhat seedy, often bearing faded signs of a long-past, distant former glory, always tenanted by people whose lives reflect the history of the hotels. Run down, worn-out people barely still living, following existence in their own peculiar fashions, sluiced out of the mainstream.
I read a newspaper article, sometime after I left Cedar Rapids, about another similar hotel in Iowa. The reporter viewed life there is a kind of play performed in the lobby, the residents actors making daily ritualized appearances, delivering their similar lines over and over. Much like Samuel Beckett, I suppose. According to the reporter, all were desperate in a quiet, antique, brokendown fashion.
In a way he was possibly accurate. We all did perform in such a way, appearing at predictable times, acting in certain established manners. Looking for mail, that most vital of all tasks, asking for the ice key with water pitcher or ice chest in hand, paying the bill, chatting with the friendlier clerks, watching the old black-and-white television, or gazing out the plate glass front window at the cars and people passing us by. Static, but only on the exterior. That reporter never probed further than his most immediate perceptions.
Life at the Allison was dreary, to be sure. It was a bleak and cheerless existence, particularly to outsiders, accustomed to comfortable apartments or houses of their own — not threadbare, more recently furnished, younger. What outsiders could not see, would never understand, was that life at the hotel was not dead and static, but old age itself, undisguised.
To passers-by and passers-through, those in motion with somewhere to go, the young and the so-called young at heart, only tedium and repetition and exhaustion and waste remained. For the old, for the residents, the Allison was the ending, their dénouement, graceless compared to their more fortunate counterparts with families and pensions. This was a conclusory time when old dream search share rushed and the blood runs slow, when pain is admittedly the principal truth of our lives and death glides solicitous and smooth beside the arthritic elbow to be fended away, illusory, by a cigarette smog and incautious alcohol.
Mirrors are enemies, revealing the pain and the wearying faces of death. Hope is not even a word, forgotten, never learned, a deception not needed or used. Each day is different, with unique aches and new mishaps, and all are the same, alike in remembered pain. And every cigarette causes more coughing, sometimes with blood, even as each provides activity. Sleep is not restful though desperately sought, and nights endure aeons.
Not a graceful life, but undignified and frequently unbearable. It is existence, which we young are too immature to comprehend. We can only brush at the edges with our fears and premonitions. It is a life we are too childishly selfish and dreadful to ease.
And so, faded already, they deteriorate, and die.
Wakdjunkaga, seldom reverent, referred to my fellow residents as the perambulating undead.
But I am ahead of myself in digressing.
To be truthful, I was considering no such philosophically melodramatic thoughts as I looked over the old man. I balanced his age and the vast quantity of accumulated years around me in other well worn rooms, and I wondered that his appearance was so deceptive. My life at the hotel had taught me, if not the complicated sort of understanding confounded already, to realize that old people need not be as they seem. But this fellow defied even the superficial estimates of observation.
He was somewhat bald, the result of a much receded hairline, and he wore his remaining locks rather long and brushed back. He had large ears, and his nose was also exaggerated and bulbous. His mouth was thin-lipped and, even in his unconscious state, very evenly and tightly drawn, actually quite grim. His jaw had once been firm, I thought, but now the flesh sagged below as undernourished jowls, revealing the raw edges of the bone structure. His cheeks were also unusually prominent. I suppose his was one of those faces we call craggy and care-ridden — deeply seen with worn, well-defined creases and wrinkles.
Physically he was not very remarkable; he was really quite scrawny. I could observe the lines of muscle and tendon clearly in his arms and the backs of his hands.
His clothing surprised me. He was wearing a brown polo shirt, blue denim jeans, a green vest-like garment which hung as long as a sports coat with several pockets in it, and red tennis shoes. His costume, for it certainly did not suit his age, distinguished him in my mind from the Allison.
Indeed, nothing about him seemed to belong there.
I ate my beans meditatively, having covered him up. Then I looked at him a while. He lay on my bed, thoroughly oblivious, breathing now as though asleep (in fact, I noticed several half-snores). I fixed a glass of coke, smoked several cigarettes, and generally fidgeted in my chair, still watching him, until it became thoroughly dark outside. I tried to read, but my mind was too busy to be distracted.
Who was he? What was he doing in my room?
I was annoyed, really, for him to be there. I had work to finish before school resumed Monday. It was only Friday night, but I knew that unless I completed some more enjoyment reading, I would never care to peruse at all the tortured prose my students had submitted previously and expected to see again, graded, Monday.