I stare through the window of Amy Tan’s room. Below, an old man watches his white dog running on the beach while in the distance a lighthouse blinks its one eye at me. Decaying tang of salt air wafts indoors. I turn from the shimmer of the ocean and walk down the hall, comforted by the presence of all these authors cradling me. Eerie.
A night in the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon. Every room is dedicated to an author and yes, tonight I will lie with Amy Tan, others with Shakespeare, Jules Verne or Rowling in the Gryffindor room, or for the kids at heart, Dr. Seuss. As I check in, the cat Shelley curls on a chair, warming in the sun. “She’s a sun-catcher cat. Wherever the sun is, she catches it,” the innkeeper states.
“Unlike the poor author.” The smell of musty volumes permeates, reminding me I’m in a familiar haunt. “I hear this old place either comforts you or spits you out.”
“Correct. You’ll either love it or hate it.”
I hear light sobbing. No one there. Mere literary sniffles, I assure myself. “Do you have Wi-Fi?”
“No internet, phones or TV. But at night there’s the creak of old bards’ footsteps in the hall, ocean crashing on the beach and we serve mulled wine in the library. Will that do?”
Already I taste the sweet tinge of cinnamon and cloves, heady musk sliding down my throat. “As long as I don’t have to drink Dickens under the table, this is my idea of perfect.” I sign in. “Like being home again.”
As I unpack, gentle cries rend the air. In the hallway, no one.
The third-floor library and coffee room beckon. High above the beach, I am alone amid overstuffed sofas, unfinished puzzles, a wood-burning fireplace and little dangling ceramic suns. Seagulls squawk in mock soliloquy and foamy whiteness glistens off the ocean’s waves, a line of marching angels crying to heaven in thunderous silence.
From nowhere, she’s there. Younger than me but that isn’t hard these days. Tear-filled eyes, trembling lips, a cloud of dark hair wreathed in lavender and patchouli, bitterness oozing from her. “Sorry,” she mutters, “didn’t mean to disturb you.”
I stare side-to-side. Where has she come from? “That’s okay. I was wondering if the seagulls were squawking at me. But most likely it was at you.”
“Me? Why would you say such a thing?” Fire steals through her glare; she wants to rake her nails across my face. Nothing quite like a lusty woman — ask Shakespeare, or Yeats, or Mae West herself.
“You bastard! Can’t you see I’m upset?” Lightning shies from her.
“Can’t you see I’m enjoying my holiday? Good day, lady.”
Ah, I’ve cast a rod and I’ve a biter.
“I’m Jane Stevens.”
“Whew, I thought you were going to say Austen or Eyre. Bad enough thinking I’m seeing ghosts. Actually talking to one would scare the crap outta me.”
She smiles on lips luscious without red lipstick. Round doe-like eyes and high cheekbones; add twenty pounds and she’d resemble Raquel Welch. Why do most women think pencils and coat-hangers are attractive? “My ex used to call me ‘lady’.” She sniffles.
“Ah, so you’ve lost someone.”
“Isn’t that why people cry?”
“Some cry over a good movie, their pets dying, eating the best chocolate cake ever. I knew a woman who cried with every orgasm.”
“What? You’re rude!” Brows frown. Eyes widen. Lips pout. I taste the stinging salt of her pain on my tongue.
“No, I’m Tom. Rude was my brother. He’d say things that’d make priests blush and nuns wet their habits.”
She blinks, mouth agape. “I . . . Are you here alone?”
“Well, if you count a suitcase and two dozen seagulls, plus an overweight couple thin on financial resources and long on lovemaking, then I’m alone with Amy Tan. Oh, the cat. I forgot about the cat. Chases mice on crutches.”
“Chases what?” She grinds the Kleenex in her fingers and another smile threatens to break. She’s beginning to think I’m nuts when I already know I am.
“Old friend once said, in my maturity I’ve learned to chase fast whiskey and slow women. It’s a big beautiful world out there. Wait, I forgot something.” I pat my pockets, frowning.
“Forgot what?” Jane watches my hands, perhaps expecting a cheap magic trick.
“Shelley! Must’ve left her in the Irish pub.” I laugh. Jane tries but fails.
“Sorry, it’s like being in hell right now.”
“Feels like forever.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet they said that at the Alamo.”
“You’re a weird, off-putting man.”
“Better than a sad excuse for a happy, full-of-life woman.”
Her eyes fire venom. She storms by me. “I think this conversation has ended.”
“I think it’s just begun. See you tonight. Mulled wine, fireplace and me. Couldn’t get any better.”
“Not in a million years.” She harrumphs. I know she’ll be there.
Next morning in the Hemingway room Jane wakes early. In the mirror, a smile graces her lips. Him, he made her laugh last night. Before she checks out she must thank Tom.
Downstairs she peruses the items in the gift shop. “Don’t you have any more sun-catchers for sale? I saw a few here yesterday.”
“Sorry, lady, we’ve never had any . . . damn.” The innkeeper looks hard at her. “Old guy, dark green suit jacket, khaki pants?”
“Lacks fashion sense, that’s Tom.”
“Darn it. We keep trying to flush him out, but he keeps coming back.”
“What do you mean, coming back? Since when?” Shivers range down her spine.
“Since the forties, I’m told.”
“What? That’s impossi. . . Tom and Shelley. Stayed in the Amy Tan room.”
“Lady, no one stayed in that room last night.”
“No. You’re wrong.” She storms upstairs. Amy Tan’s door is open and the bed neatly made. “How?”
In the hallway hang no ceramic suns. She runs up the next flight of stairs. None in the library either.
At the check-out desk the innkeeper eyes her apologetically. “I’ve owned this place since the eighties. Legend has it that one of the earliest writers hung a sun-catcher or two in the library. Guests say they’ve seen ’em. I haven’t. Seems they give people hope and life before they leave here.” He sighs. “Did he say Shelley was hanging out at the Irish pub?”
“Right, something like that.”
“Shelley was his dog. They used to go for walks together on Nye Beach. Sometime back in the forties. Sorry, lady.”
Outside, the morning sun casts its warmth over her. “Too bad. If he’d kept plying me with that mulled wine, he might have got lucky.” She stares over the sands one last time.
Beyond the dunes, surf roars, an old man with his back to her studying the Yaquina Head lighthouse. His white dog runs manically around chasing seagulls, their squawking tormenting the frustrated canine.
“See you Tom, and thanks for the butt-kicking. I sure needed it.”
The old man lifts his arm, as if waving offhandedly, as if he’d heard her over the ocean’s drone. She walks away, the hotel sign creaking on rusted hinges.