The Same Hotel Clerk
“Thank you for your card, Sir. It looks like we have you on the fifth floor, with a fine view of the water this evening. Can you dig it?”
I chuckled to myself. That was a weird thing to say to almost anyone else. But the words reminded me of my dad. Before his passing, my father was very into the counter-culture movement of the sixties. “Can you dig it?” was one of his favorite phrases.
The hotel clerk’s neat name tag read ‘Richard.’
“I can dig it,” I replied with a crooked grin.
In those days, I traveled a lot on my own. My employer was a law firm, and my goal was to move across the country and pitch our Powerpoints to Colleges and Universities. If we landed even one of them on retainer, it was a huge net gain for the company. Ultimately, that usually resulted in a substantial pay bump on my end. It was lucrative, lonely, and boring work.
At first, being on the road every day was like an adventure. Every night was a new city, and all of the expenses were covered by the firm. I didn’t have many friends, and most of my family died young. But in my young mind, those qualities made me the perfect candidate.
Soon, the reality of those depressing facts did come crashing down on me. I was twenty-eight, with my thirties looking me in my face, and nothing but a little bit of money to show for it.
It’s funny how strangers can become your family if you let them. If it were Thanksgiving or Easter; we were the folks still filling the airports and inns. Sometimes I would stop in the same city twice, and see a familiar face at the TSA checkout. We never talked, or acknowledged one another, and it was a beautiful bond in that way. There was some comfort in knowing that if I checked into Chicago, good old Charlie would probably still be at the O’Hare Cinnabon.
But I never met anyone quite like Richard the hotel clerk. He was in his twenties, maybe a couple years younger than me. His short, cropped hair suggested he had some sort of history in the military. But his goofy ears and warm smile reflected a calming and friendly nature.
We had seen each other a week prior, in Houston. He had been a particularly memorable host. After a few bottles, I had spilled some whiskey on the floor and had to call downstairs for help. Richard showed up with towels to mop up the whole thing while I was showering off the stink of alcohol. Before I even finished, the room was spotless and Richard was already gone. He received a twenty buck tip and we never talked again.
But this time, we were in Austin, 160 miles west.
I wasn’t overly suspicious. It had been seven days since our encounter in Houston, enough time for me to make another stop in College Station along the way. I did not see Richard there, so it was natural to assume the guy had been transferred.
And yet, when I said –
“Good to see you again,”
His puzzled look was surprising.
The next morning at checkout, there was a new girl at the stand. I asked her about Richard, but she looked confused as well. After working there for ten years, she had never met anyone with that name. The company had not been hiring lately, and there was no one transferring. She was very adamant, and asked if I was sure the man worked there.
I lied and said there must have been some confusion.
The next stop was Oklahoma City. It was a short flight, so the free cocktails and freezer-burned food were a pleasant surprise. I choked them both down in gulps, working up a drunken stupor as the mystery of Richard disappeared and my mind focused on the presentation the following morning.
In a couple hours, we landed, and it wasn’t until then I realized it was Christmas Day. Every city corner was jam packed with families and friends out enjoying the falling snowflakes. Luckily for me, our booking agent had managed to book a hotel well ahead of time. It was cold, and when the taxi dropped me off at the front of the hotel, I was relieved to see a figure run up from inside to help with the luggage.
He grabbed both bags and brought them in. Then, in a familiar tone, asked –
“Hello Sir, can I help you check-in today?”
I backed away slowly, not sure what to do, or what to say. There was Richard, as unassuming and polite as ever.
“Who are you?” I asked, angrily.
“I’m the hotel’s clerk. I’m sorry Sir, are you staying with us tonight?” he replied patiently, as if dealing with an angry bum on the street.
I grabbed my bags and backed out the door, leaving Richard with that same puzzled look on his face.
But I sound found out that the options were limited. Every hotel was booked or closed. Even the car rental places were closed for the holiday. Finally, after three hours of searching, I found a shitty Motel 6 just outside of town that had one room available.
The receptionist was a middle-aged blonde woman named Tina, with kind, wrinkled eyes. I gave her all of my information, and Tina was just as excited as I was when she said there was an opening. Due to the holiday, the form needed her manager’s approval, so she asked to step away for a moment to get him.
When Richard walked in the room, I stopped breathing.
He futzed around forgetfully, looking for a pen to sign whatever form they had. Once he found it, he tapped it on the desk once and looked up with a total lack of surprise.
“Thank you for your card, Sir! It looks like we have you on the fifth floor, with a fine view of the snow flakes this evening. Can you dig it?”
It felt like every shred of air in my lungs had escaped.
“Who are you?! Why are you following me?” I asked him, screaming drunkenly through the glass window between us. But Richard just looked at me – with that same stupid, gently confused face. His tone changed to slightly annoyed, like he was dealing with somebody off the street.
“Sir, there is no need to be aggressive. You can stay in our room or you can freeze on the street. That is your choice.”
I started to doubt myself. Was this all part of my imagination? Was this not the guy I had seen every night?
My vision was clouded at that point. I knew I drank too much, knew that my little hobby had become more of a problem. I knew it was freezing. Cold enough to kill me, or at the least get me fired for a poor presentation tomorrow. It was past midnight and I just needed to close my eyes.
In that shroud of confusion and stupor, I took the room.
Richard escorted me upstairs, and he was silent the whole way. After unlocking my door, he gave me an extra key, a reassuring pat on the back coupled with a couple tut tuts before he stepped outside. I just stared at him, burning holes in his back and trying to quantify how it was possible that this man was standing in the same room as me.
When he left, I locked the door and the chain and moved the dresser in front of the window. The room was airtight and secure.
I don’t know when I fell asleep. But when I woke up, the door handle was jiggling and I was in a lot of pain. My head felt as if it someone were playing drums on the outside of it. I was paralyzed, unable to move or speak at all.
In seconds, I heard the piercing noise of a metal tool sawing through the chain.
I knew I had to defend myself, but my arms felt like anvils. I tried planting them on the bed to lift myself up, but it was useless. Even my voice didn’t work, and all of the pain inside my body felt bottled up without the ability to scream. Lacking any other options, I shimmied myself off the bed and fell onto the floor, just as Richard broke through the chain and opened the door.
My heart felt as if it were about to explode. My ears ringed over and over, and it was if I could feel the beats coming out of my chest.
I knew I was dead when he leaned over me. I closed my eyes, fully expecting that the last thing they would see would be Richard’s big ears and wide grin.
But it wasn’t.
I woke up in a hospital, a week later, connected to a thousand tubes and devices set up to monitor my health. Someone had seen the open door of my hotel room and called 9-1-1.
I suffered a massive heart-attack, the type that is capable of killing even a kid of twenty-eight. At the time, I was not aware that heart disease ran in my family, so I never took the necessary steps to prevent it.
I asked all the hotels in Oklahoma City about Richard. Every single one, even the seedy ones. There was even a sketch made.
I did this… even while knowing the real answer all along. Recently, I stumbled across a picture of my dad, back in his prime, when he served in Vietnam.
His name was Richard, too, and he’s got those same goofy ears.