The hotel is haunted, or so the old man tells me. I feel out of place here, a place where there are two weddings today and the architecture is dazzling and where it seems like I’ve stepped back in time. All I have with me is my backpack, yellow with flower patches sewn on it. There’s a sign that says “Observation Deck, 52nd Floor” in neat handwriting near the elevator. I press the elevator button. A woman comes to stand with me, her face young and round, wearing 1930s dress and a wistful smile.
“Are you going up to the deck?” she asks me.
I nod and fiddle with my backpack straps.
“It’s a nice view.”
The car gets there then, and I don’t have to make any more conversation. I think about why I am here. Two days ago, I decided that I was tired of everything in this world and that the best place to go was Chicago, and the best thing to do was to book a hotel room in an old hotel, and all I needed with me was my backpack.
This was likely a poor idea.
When the elevator shudders to a stop, we exit into a small room. There are little trinkets (Pencils, 50 cents) and a woman with dark hair tied into a bun at a cash register. The sign on the register reads “Observation Deck: $3.”
“Hi,” I say to the woman, my voice clenched with disuse, “Can I go out to the deck? I’ll pay for this woman’s fare, too.” I point to my elevator partner.
“It’s just you,” the cashier replies, “Although if you want to pay more, go ahead.”
“I’m not allowed to pay for another person’s fare?”
“No, there’s just no one else in here, dear.” The cashier’s face slants into sadness and understanding, “They come out sometimes. This hotel has a lot of stories. Be careful out there.” She accepts my three sweaty dollar bills. I push open the door to the deck.
Chicago spreads around me. The 52nd floor offers a semi-impressive view. It’s better than the view out of a Greyhound bus, that’s for sure. I sit down on a stone bench and cross my legs, pulling out my notebook. What is there to write about anymore? There was a point where I was a well of words, and now I am as unconventional as the dried-up metaphor I just used. Do I write about seeing a ghost in a potentially haunted hotel? Do I write about the cashier with the severe bun and the round face and the concerned eyes? Do I write about what I saw in my face in the elevator ride up, as if I was a plant that had just been ripped from the soil?
I can write about none of those things, I decide.
I stay out on the observation deck until the sun begins to set, turning Chicago brassy, both beautiful and off-putting. The sky is a riot of colors, arguing over who will dominate—yellow or blue or purple or orange or pink?
The cashier comes out to get me. I don’t remember the words she says as she helps me up and back inside, but I do remember her asking me if I had seen anymore.
I tell her that I have seen some more, that they came out to watch the sunset with me. I didn’t see my 1930s lady, but I did see others, with little kid gloves and short heels dyed to match their dresses and polite hats and brooches. If I were to become a ghost right now, I would be preserved as they are, just as I am.
I cannot take the women out of my mind. As I sit in the jazz lounge downstairs, my notebook still open and still empty, the thought of them curls through my mind, a gentle thrumming as the pianist’s fingers trail across the keys and the saxophone croons.
There’s something left there, lodged in the space between the sections of my ribs, and I know that I have to get it out. I know that sitting in a jazz bar listening to a pianist isn’t going to do it.
“Are you alright, sweetheart?”
I start and turn towards the voice. There’s a young man, dressed rather smart, next to me, a cocked hat and a handkerchief in his pocket and a pocket watch—I can see the chain.
“I am.” There it is again, the rusty door.
“I’d offer to buy you a drink, but…” He spreads his hands wide, and one of them goes through the chair next to us.
“What’s your name?”
“Tracy,” he responds, as if he’s turning my name over in his ghostly mouth (for that’s what he is, isn’t he?), as if it tastes funny and he’d like to spit it out, but he knows it would be rude.
“How did you die?”
“That’s rude, you know.” He fingers his watch, “I fell off the observation deck. That’s how it happens sometimes.”
“I’m a writer,” I reply.
“I’ve been looking for one of those.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, aren’t books just mixed-up memories?” He does the hand-spreading again, “And I am just mixed-up memories. We all are here.”
It occurs to me that the old man I met may well have been dead, too. But it didn’t seem as if he was warning me, it was as if he just wanted to let me know—
This way to the stories.
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