The rain had turned to snow, and there were icy patches on the road. The windshield wiper and defroster weren't doing very well, and I found myself hunched over the wheel, peering through a clear spot in the ice covered windshield, a spot the size of a postcard. The reflection of the headlights off the whirling snow made it difficult for these old eyes to see, and I was really concerned that I might run off the twisty, two-lane road and kill myself. I wasn't sure where I was, but it sure wasn't the interstate -- no lights, no signs, just blackness. It was then I saw the sign, Whispering Pines Hotel, 1/2 mile.
I slowed even more, searching for another sign. I barely spotted the drive, and the tires skidded as I turned off the road and drove slowly up a hill. I breathed a little easier when I saw, through the snow, some lights. I found myself in a long, crescent shaped parking lot, mostly empty, and I was able to find a space not far from the hotel entrance, which was flanked by warmly lighted windows, a very welcome sight. I took my suitcase off the back seat and made my way to the door. A cold wetness in my right shoe reminded me it needed to be resoled.
As I approached the door, I could see that the hotel was a big house that looked to be a hundred years old: three stories, a steeply pitched roof, several chimneys, narrow clapboard siding, probably a wooden fire trap. On either side, long, lower additions, showing no lights, extended into the darkness, the far ends invisible.
The inside was nice enough, kind of rustic, with a fire in a stone fireplace. I went over to the knotty pine front desk and stood for a moment, catching my breath and brushing snowflakes off my coat. No one came, so I tapped the bell, one of those little chrome hemispheres with a button on top, sort of like a tit off a four foot female metal manikin. I'm sorry, that observation was out of line, but I guess I've gotten to be a dirty old man these past years.
Anyway, two women appeared, one perhaps thirty-five, and the other could have been her daughter. The younger one spoke; "Yes, Sir, can we help you?"
"I'd like a room for the night."
"I'm, sorry, Sir, but we have no vacancies." The older one looked on approvingly, as if she were training new help.
"Look," I said, "you've got to have something. Big place like this, and so few cars. I'll take anything."
"I'm sorry, Sir," said the older one, "but, you see, it's off-season, and the north and south wings are shut down, no water or heat, you understand. We're all booked up. There's a motel in Anniston. I could call and see if they have a vacancy."
"Anniston? How far is that?"
"Twenty-seven miles," said the younger.
"No way I'm driving 27 miles in this weather. I'd sleep in my car, first. But surely you have something. It wouldn't have to be fancy. Just a bed. I'll sleep on a couch in the lobby, if I have to."
"Well, there is a room in the attic," said the younger.
"Mom, we can't turn the guy out on a night like this."
The older woman looked disturbed. "Sir, there is one room, but we don't rent it out. It's... well, it's not much of a room, not remodelled like the others. No TV, you understand."
"If it has a bed, I'll take it."
"Well, yes, it has a bed, but..."
"Please, Lady, I don't have the strength to go on."
"Of course, Sir. If you'll just sign the registration card. Nancy, let him have it at half price. Sir, if you would like some dinner, or a drink in the lounge, the restaurant is just through there. Perhaps you would like to wait a few minutes. I'll take your bag up and just make sure the room is made up for guests." She came around the counter, took my suitcase, and went to the elevator.
I signed the card and pushed a credit card across the desk. "I don't think I'll have dinner. Not hungry." Actually, I was suffering from heartburn, a nagging pain in my chest. "You serve breakfast?"
"Yes, starting at six. If you would like to wait in the lounge, Mr... Mr. Winslow, I'll come get you when your room is made up."
I went in and sat at the bar. The TV was off; there was no one there. I could see into the dining room. There were only a few people I could see: a couple of men in checkered flannel shirts, a white-haired couple who might be stopping on their way to Florida, a middle-aged man holding the hand of a woman much younger than he was, probably not his wife. Maybe they came to this out-of-the-way place to have their illicit little affair where no one they knew would see them. A waitress came out and asked me if I would like something from the bar. I ordered a glass of milk and two shots of whiskey, the milk for my stomach and the whiskey for my weariness.
It was the older woman who came to get me. She took me up in the elevator to the third floor, and then up some narrow stairs with rubber treads to a sort of attic. "These rooms aren't really guest rooms," she said apologetically, "they're for the staff. There's just this one, at the end of the hall, that we don't use." She led me down a hallway, dimly lit by bare 25 watt bulbs. She pushed open a door and let me in. "There isn't any room phone, but there's a house phone by the elevator, if you need anything."
The room was built against the roof, with the top half of the outside wall sloping inward, and there was a niche with a narrow dormer window. There was a big, brass bed, with fresh white sheets and a huge, thick down comforter, pink. At that point, it looked like heaven. "It will do fine," I said.
"Good night then. Oh, would you like someone to wake you in the morning? No phone, I'm afraid. Or I could bring you an alarm clock."
"No. No," I said, "I feel like I could sleep till noon."
"Well, good night, then. I hope you sleep well." She closed the door behind her, and I heard her walking back toward the stairs.
The silence was almost oppressive. I wondered if anyone else was in the attic, if there was a fire escape. Normally, I always look, but I was so weary, and I still had that strange feeling in my chest, in spite of the milk. I guess the whiskey was getting to me, too. My suitcase was there on the dresser. I undid the noisy brass latches, got out my shaving kit, and went to use the bathroom. The bathroom was a old-fashioned affair, with a tile floor and a big clawfoot tub, placed where there had once been a door to the hall, judging from the outline in the painted plaster. I guessed that there had been two rooms, probably originally for the servants, and they had knocked through into one room to make the bath. Yes, when I went back to the bedroom, I could see there was a sort of curtained alcove where the other half of the second room had been. It made the bedroom a sort of el.
The bedside lamp wasn't very bright, and the wallpaper was yellowed, with faded green vines and pale pink rosebuds running upward to an uneven, cracked ceiling. Painted floor, no carpet. I noticed a sort of musty, dusty smell, as if the room had been closed for a long time, but it was inviting in a homey, nostalgic way. It reminded me of the upstairs of a cottage our family had rented one summer when I was... fourteen, I think. Steam hissed in an old radiator, probably just turned on, and it managed to take the chill off the room. I peeked out the little dormer window, but all I saw was snowflakes, inches from my face. I kicked off my shoes and flopped on the bed, sinking deeply into that comforter, and the feather bed under it. I thought to myself, as my weary muscles relaxed, they don't make them like this any more.
Likely I dozed for a few minutes. I remember suddenly realizing that the room had got quite warm, and I had neglected to undress. I swung my stockinged feet to the floor and went to turn off the valve on the burning hot radiator. Then I peeled out of my clothes, laying my trousers on the stand by the bed, where I could find them in a hurry, if there was a fire or something. It occurred to me that there might be coat hangers in the little alcove. I picked up my suit coat, went to the curtain, and slid it back on its tarnished brass rings.
At first, I could not believe my eyes. It took me a moment to adapt to the dark, to focus and convince myself of what I saw, which at first was mostly a pale face and a white bib apron. It was a girl, a woman, just standing there in the otherwise empty alcove. She was wearing a black wool dress which covered her from neck to mid calf, and she had her light brown hair pinned up behind her head, with a little sort of doily for a hat. She smiled at me, a friendly, provocative smile. She might have been any age from 16 to 26, but she had the strangest look, a mixture of childish innocence and seductive sensuousness. She wore no make-up, but she struck me as being very pretty. What does one say when confronted by a pretty woman, when one is naked, save for a handful of clothing held in front of one's privates?
She spoke first: "I didn't expect to find a man in my room, especially an attractive, older man."
"Excuse me," I said, "but are you sure this is your room?"
"Oh, yes, but I'm glad you are here. Let me hang up your suit for you." She stepped closer, took the coat from my hands, and left me there, speechless and stark naked, looking down into her haunting grey eyes. She wore, I decided, a maid's uniform. Perhaps she was used to... no. It was unreal. To my surprise, I found I was sexually aroused at the sight of her. If she noticed, she didn't let on, as she smoothed the coat on a hanger. "Is there anything more I can do for you, Mr..."
"Winslow. Elmont Winslow."
"Elmont. I like that name. I had a friend," she remarked, casually, "named Elmont. You look like him, a bit. When were you born, Mr. Winslow?"
"December 17, 1926," I replied, automatically.
"He would be a little older," she observed.
I bolted for the bed and pulled the bulky down comforter over me, to cover my raging erection, my nakedness in general. "Would be? Something happen to him?"
"I don't know what happened to him. I haven't seen him for a long time." She approached the bed. "Don't be embarrassed, Elmont. It isn't as if I'd never seen a naked man before." I sat there, hugging the comforter, speechless. "My, it's warm in here," she said. "Do you mind if I make myself a little more comfortable?"
"Who are you?" I said, foolishly.
"Ellen. I'm an upstairs maid."
"What are you doing in my room?"