Where I worked was a B & B, trying to be European, but hopelessly American, surrounded by rangy sunflowers which looked like weeds that were pretty. Behind them was the small two-story lonely-white B & B, with its old arched half-round balcony, too tiny to stand on for longer than a minute or two, but looking as if you possibly might have an important thought while standing there. Its communal dining area tried to be cozy, with a fireplace that was rarely lit; its beds had thin blankets.
Soon, across town, the famous young actor was going to be at the town’s real hotel, a historic hotel which was like the true high church of the town—The Royal Dervish Hotel. I knew they must be polishing those tall, tall windows, with their original glass, with that devoted squeak at their corners that bespoke the worried. They stood on ladders. To polish. Again, I knew that the actor was coming to town; I had seen him in all his movies, or almost all of them; followed his press releases. He—whose trademark was a baffled not-again expression when women fell in love with him, again and again, in films.
Of course he must be staying at The Royal Dervish Hotel: the only beautiful hotel in the college town. The university at which, to date, I’d studied something, I couldn’t remember what, for two years, till I decided I’d take a break, make money, and just not think, really, anymore.
The Royal Dervish must, I thought, be for nothing but the lucky joys felt by guests; at The Sunflower B & B our guests seemed almost always peeved; its phone, which I answered, often rang. And our guests did not have thank yous. Soothing the savage beast, the disappointed people who stayed there, was my job. Sometimes they said I had a southern accent, and all I could manage was a Yes I do.
But I often drifted in my car, as if in a canoe, past the historic Dervish, which had survived once being set on fire during The Civil War, survived countless other tests: it survived, because it was beautiful deep down. And had the grace The Sunflower could never have.
My mother, who, yes, I still lived with—did not know I went to the old determined prosperous important part of town where The Dervish was, where novelists, I imagined, could linger, studying, like me, the happiness of people inside The Royal Dervish as they sat in twos and threes, in beautiful rounded, accommodating chairs with polished wooden legs, upholstered in stripes. That dark-haired actor—what would he notice about the hotel? How tall it rose to the dreary sky, how its windows seemed like sadness, how its windows seemed to invite a spider to climb its height, but warned it, too, it would not last long there? The windows warned all visitors, with their perfect gloss, that The Royal Dervish was a fine place, but you couldn’t belong there forever. Even if you worked there, or came as a visitor; it didn’t matter how fine or rich or splendid you were. Like students at a university, you would eventually be banished, so others might come along, and take your place.
Billie, said my mother, one summer evening, in the place we shared. It’s time you wrote to our uncle. He might listen to you. Hint to him we could use some money for your college. Or tell him outright.
Perhaps he needs it, I said.
Why would he, she said. He, as you know, has no family now. No wife, no children.
Well, I wanted to say, perhaps he doesn’t think we’re family, he thinks we’re like spiders waiting to take his fortune.
But I didn’t say this.
My mother had that lonely-empress look on her face which said: you know, Billie, how we’ve suffered for the men in this world. And that look also said I must write to him, my great uncle, her relative through a once-optimistic-marriage long-ago-gone-south. And then my father died. But to her he was still an uncle-in-law.
Tell him, she said. Say you need that money—for college.
But I can’t do that, I said. It’s not true that it’s for college. I haven’t enrolled. I have a job, you know.
You can make it true if he gives you the money, she said. And you can leave that job of yours at The Sunflower.
What’s wrong with The Sunflower, I said.
It will eat you and your life up, she said. While you’re busy making other people happy.
Yes, I can write the letter, I said. But first let me find some good stationery. I’m going downtown to buy some.
Uncle Thornton lived very far away, in what he described with a smile as ‘deadly Boston.’ It had been years since we had seen him. More than you could easily count.
Has to have a deckle edge, I said. That kind.
My mother stopped, on the way to the copy-paper drawer of our printer.
Oh, if you think so, she said, but in a doubting voice. She went to lie down in her dark room where she kept the bird cage with the pretend-canary in it, bright blue with bits of red, which she sometimes tapped to make it sing its mechanical song. The world did not know what a song she, my mother, had in her chest. What she could have sung and what she could have said.
I was her youngest; all the rest had moved away, and were between divorces. I was, as she said, really all she really had, and this split me like a broken bird owning only half its own heart. She was on the other side, in duplex-fashion.
So this is how I came, one odder-than-odd night, when I didn’t know it but I truly was going out to seek my fortune, in some way that did not necessarily involve begging great-uncle for a check—driving past, again, The Royal Dervish (do not ask me how it got that name—it sounded like a dancer dancing in a fever, or a trance)—enjoying, now, glancing up and down at its shined glass which seemed to have a warmed doubleness, due to its beveled edges all around.
Stationery was what I was supposed to be finding, at a stationery store on that old street. Stationery helped you cheer or impress people, or connive them into—something. Stationery could help me put off, for at least one more day, writing to our uncle.
But—look—what a car, neither brown nor purple, something almost that beautiful color of prune juice. With its door opening, at The Royal Dervish. Its gloss color was like wine mixed with mud. Dark-muddy, rarely seen. Its gleam delirious as a dream.
As its door opened it was more beautiful, its fittings inside different than other cars, gleamier, you could tell. And there was—surely—the performer, the actor! His boots had a low-lustre gleam, as if Puss-in-Boots had come to town, after a long trip. But he was human, and his hair fell in a fitful, dull, silkish sweep. You could see just the edges of his glory; there was not much color at all in his clothing, as if he loved to be able to murkily disappear. His downward gaze was deft and quick, and never would have strayed to me, passing in my car. His fine-focused attention was on the bellman and driver and bags, assistance necessary to place him in his hotel. What was it a friend of my mother had told me once? To catch a man you have to make yourself useful to him. Everyone, here, outside the hotel, was useful to him: but not a female in sight.
Don’t forget the stationery, I saw, in words, suddenly, brightly, on my phone.
It was, of course, from my mother. Who I knew thought, as most people thought, actors were shallow. That we in the Midwest were real, authentic and deep, and loyally, wisely local. She also knew I was highly distractible; and might also purposely forget to get that stationery I had said I was on my way to get.
Won’t, I typed, irritably. Almost there.
But I wanted to be inside The Royal Dervish Hotel and smell those delicious vaporizing waxes they used, without thought for its cost, something with real lemon and true beeswax in it, and perhaps as an extra surprise some oil of rosemary or of lavender. There was a slight touch of bitter in its smell, I remembered. It stayed in your nose-memory.
So—why not? Go inside? I’d been inside many times before. I could go in now, just accidentally, several minutes after the actor, who would be, I knew, performing at the performing arts center, for a week or two. In a play. He was sure to increase their ticket sales, make the college town feel proud; all the lawyers and professors in town would brag about having seen the play.
You can tell I am a bit acidic about men, and about the rich, and about my prospects generally, as I was a bird with a heart split in two, by my love for my mother; and she had flown me out of every relationship I was ever in. But I was young, and I was allowed to be impetuous. Even I knew that.
He was going in its high fine doors, now learning how The Royal Dervish smelled like a heaven the Midwest did not deserve. And I was going to go in, too. I knew how to park a car at a divine place. It would be another magical clandestine visit by me to the hotel. To me, it was like a magic art museum. I gathered my dark rain jacket around me, turning up its collar to look as if I was a visitor to the town, too, and also afraid of “autumn closing in,” as Bob Seger sings. I wanted to look as the actor looked himself—as if on a difficult-to-define mission, in his case, playing a Shakespearean figure in the Midwest.
Let me tell you, the smell of The Royal Dervish Hotel is like your life starting over. As sharp as corners of glossy windows, as sunshine-filled as a good birth in a good family. As round as the dance around the Maypole, as brave as the Mayflower arriving. English dreams. The aroma said welcome, and it said we will protect you, whoever you are, during your stay. It told the actor he could play Hamlet, and The Royal Dervish would even give you the tallest possible mirror in your room, just dark enough to let you make faces in it and practice, and become even a Hamlet: in that mirror your face would glow even better and truer than it ever could onstage—your face made even more handsome by fine hotel’s shadows.
He was not going to play Hamlet. But I told myself he was, it was what he deserved to play, instead of a minor king in a Shakespearean play, whose name I couldn’t remember and didn’t want to remember, a kind of Plan B king that vengeful Shakespeare used as a foil or a prop. There was a bigger actor coming to town who was going to play Shakespeare’s Plan A king, but I didn’t give a damn about him, or Shakespeare’s Plan A.
Here, just minutes ago, Plan B king/prince had just walked into this lobby, already planning his Plan B king ways, hoping to find a way to pull the rug out from under the feet of Plan A king, in slyest, and most brilliant ways. The youngest in the fairy tale solves all the awful riddles, against all odds. This actor I adored in my imagination—was always the winner, even in terrible, losing roles. (If he was the murderer, why, you were glad he’d murdered. He’d been right.)
He was already gone from the desk; movie stars, apparently, don’t have to bother with much chat, at check-in. In like silly Flynn, as my mother often said.
Can I help you, said the desk clerk, a man with an elaborate beard. He looked, I thought, like the forever-here type. Someone who’d had to stay in town: because, say, his wife refused to move out of town, because all her friends were here. That trapped kind.
I stayed here last year and you had the most beautiful stationery, I heard myself saying. I wanted to write to my old uncle. I’m staying at another hotel and I wonder if you could give me just a sheet or two, to help him remember this place, I said.
Well, surely, he said. That’d be good advertising for us. But why aren’t you staying with us again?
Because I’m broke, I said, and smiled.
He laughed, the way people laugh when they’re broke, too.
I could swear I’ve seen you around town, he said.
Oh, you have, I have friends and family here, I said. I visit them often. Though travel’s so expensive.
I hear you, he said. I’ll call Estella upstairs and get her to bring down some stationery. Would two envelopes and a few sheets of paper do?
So wonderful, I said. It will bring back great memories for him. Once he went to school here.
The ties that bind, he said. She’ll bring it down. Right now I’ve got to go off and check we’ve got things right in the dining room. We’ve got a special guest.
Do you, I said.
Can’t say who, he said.
That’s all right, I said, quickly. I’m sure you have a lot.
All this made me think of how we never had special guests at The Sunflower B & B. There were only special complainers. Turning down the beds intruded on them. They were allergic to whatever flowers we put in the rooms. Our space heaters were full of dust, and, really, should be gotten rid of. And could we think of taking down the French impressionist posters on the wall and start replacing them with real American art? It was true the rooms were too expensive, and they had probably made a mistake choosing us, but what could you do? Life was supply and demand, and there were photos in their computers which made The Sunflower bed and breakfast look like a great, whimsical, cheerful deal. But we used Lemon Pledge spray wax, out of an aerosol can, and Lemon Pledge spray wax pretty much summed us up.
I could stay here forever, I said, to the clerk. Maybe I will check in. Could I sit in this chair and even write one of my letters here?
Why certainly, be our guest, said the full-bearded man.
He then departed, and a young woman with hair pulled back into a glossy ponytail, and a fine manicure, took his place.
I sat. There was strange low music, coming from somewhere: music that was like the filigree of an old furnace grate, curlicue and contained and abandoned, and the guardian of you, keeping you and your soul from tumbling somewhere dangerous. At this very moment, I was thinking, the young actor often in my imagination might be looking at himself in a large mirror, removing his jacket and sampling a Perrier and feeling sorry it was not the right temperature, and feeling hungry, too, and checking a notebook to see where he was supposed to be tomorrow.
Me, I was almost suicidal this year, working at The Sunflower B & B, supporting my mother, noble as she was: but now I’d been asked to write to my great-uncle, and ask him for college funds, which told me my mother thought my ship, her ship, our ship, was sinking. Between the lines of that letter, of course, was the question (as I no longer had a father): would he be generous, and be his substitute?
We all must beg. But why couldn’t my mother write to him herself? It was complicated, but I knew why.
They were not deckle-edged, these pieces of paper. But creamy, lovely. With a blue pen I found in my purse I embellished them ridiculously and properly with handwriting I’d inherited from my mother, always billowing like sails of English ships at sea.
I wrote to the actor, by name:
Dear xxx xxxx, You are not Plan B king/prince Shakespearean actor to me. You are absolutely royal, and you are inherently, naturally noble, and you would never give in to evil impulses. I could drive you to the performing arts center. Don’t mess with a cabbie or someone they send around. They’ll send pictures of you to the tabloids. Signed, Billie.
And postscript: Billie is not a stage name. I have never acted. Yes, I know it sounds Southern. I was once.
Who cared if I was insane? It was the little pretend-bird in my mother’s pretend-birdcage who was most insane, singing its same chirps every time you flicked the little black lever near its tiny claw feet. I placed an envelope atop the creamy letter I had just written, and scrawled, mostly-legibly, the actor’s ridiculous fine name on it (was it real?), underlined that name, and gave it to the ponytail woman. The bearded desk clerk who’d given me the stationery was still nowhere to be seen.
He’s expecting this, I said.
I hoped I’d remembered to put my phone number in it; I thought I had. I remembered arranging that little flicker of a dash between numbers, and putting the area code, like a secret code, within parentheses.
For him? she said.
I hope he gets it soon, I said. I said I’d stop by and leave a message for him here at the desk.
Okay then, she said. And she nodded.
It was all feeling like a (desperate) dream.
The smell of polish went with me, protected me, as I walked out of the lobby, back to my car; and it might still in some way protect me, till the actor called. I knew he would call. I had been able to read loneliness from the way he stood beside the car, helping the driver and the bellman; he looked eager to be talking with someone, anyone.
And all of this had felt far better than a suicide note. If it all came to nothing, black, bottom-of-the-well nothing, I had leftover paper. I still could write to my great-uncle and make my mother happier. But I couldn’t make mistakes on them more than once: only two small crested sheets of paper, and one envelope, remained.
I drove to what I thought of as the town’s royal car wash, where my car was buffed by large swaying octopi of fiber and swirl, bright dyed liquids, hushed and almost buffed by the air of hot fans, too. Almost a transatlantic crossing, in a diver’s suit. I waited for my phone to ring; I combed my hair in my rear-view mirror. And then my phone did ring, just as air was blowing in its last, fading way, on my tail lights, as I was exiting the wash-chamber, and I had just finished imagining for the fifth time the horrified look that would be on my great-uncle’s face when he read the letter asking for money, which my mother seemed sure he mysteriously owed us.
Who are you? he said. Are you the woman Edward told me I was supposed to call?
Oh, I’m sure I am, I said. I’m not Davina, though, I’m Billie.
I don’t know where Davina came from; to me she sounded like a dutiful, life-long slave to Great Britain. And theater.
Well, I’m ready, he said. Where are we going first?
Wherever you like, I said. I’m here to keep you company. To show this town to you, a little bit, though there’s not much to see. You’re in its castle, now.
I’m in its castle, he said.
When I crept home I felt like the Indians’ thunderbird that had flown over all the tribes, and I had taken notes about who deserved the best dwellings and the best offerings from all tribal leaders, the sleeping ones and the dead. My eyes felt like the corners of beautiful windows and mirrors, and I felt all breezes like long expanses of cloth whipping all around me, but loving me and holding me up in the air. Below, nimble, grateful buffalo had thundered, their hooves never hesitating, and the ground was like large up-swelling puffs of happiness, growing things that filled the oxygen with good sweetness. And I knew what color the sheets in The Royal Dervish were: they were palest blue.
Billie, you’re late, said my mother. I hope you wrote the letter.
Oh, I wrote the letter, mother, I said. I really wrote the letter.
Did you mail it, said my mother.
Mailed it, I said, and I felt my eyes fill with a brightness like insufferable blueness. I remembered the splendid hotel room and yet its sadness, the sadness of the actor and his loneliness, the way the tall lamps outside of the hotel, seen through its high upstairs window, looked like warnings that a person should not come in unless they want to be under a spell. And how shy he looked when he took his shirt off.
My throat is acting up, my mother said, from her dark room, where I knew she had been trying to fall asleep for a long time, depending on what she called her sleep agent, a drug the doctors were beginning to give to her because it really was more and more hopeless to try to help her get much sleep, but it worked a little psychological magic. Her throat acted up the way a throat would act up if it had been sealed up for a lifetime, had wanted to sing the way a bird wanted to fly, wanted uplift and turn and soar, but couldn’t have it. All that she had been deprived of, because of the jealousy of others, or the inability of others to act, when they loved her, and wanted her to be theirs, long ago, but froze in place instead. Hamlet was not the only one who froze.
Oh, mama, you can sleep now, don’t worry, I said. But it was wishing her more sorrow—because sleep, and her desperate dreams, only made her a trapped thing becoming more trapped. Bird wings flapping and flapping, and no lift-off.
You wrote to your uncle, she said.
I wrote, yes, I said, though I knew it wasn’t to my uncle-through-marriage-once I had written. I suppose I preferred her believing that uncle just never wrote back.
His postcard—he didn’t even know I lived with my mother—came five days later, but by then, when my mother saw it, signed only by his initials, so no one at the post office would leap on it—I was helping him as an assistant, at the theater, well before his play began: and by then he knew there was no Davina, and that I had inserted myself like precious hot-fire fate. And he had forgiven me, even said he admired my bravery.
He said I was doing, hilariously, what he’d done himself to get started in theater. Pretending he belonged, he had launched himself right into the RSC, the Royal Shakespeare Company. Suddenly they had an extra props man, with a melodic voice, who’d had bit parts at The Globe and The National.
His arm was around me, and I was the difference between his being awkward in town, or being in love. He chose the fresh stupidity of love. He had a love interest in the play, an English Samantha. That awful Samantha would not have been the good I was for him; I knew he liked to have his shoulders stroked as if I was the car wash and I could absolve them of pain and dust and dirt and weariness and endless airplane trips; I cheered him as big bright blooming sunflowers on their tall stalks do. Coming right up to your window. But hurry, you lovers of sunflowers: before they become a kettle of seeds, and the insanely yellow petals disappear, and with them goes the summer, too.
From the sudden postcard, to our humble address, my mother knew I’d been messing around, but messing around would have been good for her and it was too late, and she knew it though she couldn’t say it; she’d wasted a lot of her time on church goodness.
Your uncle, she tried once again to say, but it was over the phone, and I was already faraway with him; everywhere he, the actor, went, he needed someone to deal with the desk people and the drivers, and to help him figure out what to wear, and what not to wear. Basically he needed an assistant who was lonely and helpful, and young like him, and I was those. And he was saving me from being a student forever-subsidized by a distant uncle, and from telling people: yes, we did have toothbrushes at the check-in, but they would be one dollar each.
And I did finally call my uncle, but only when my mother died, and I was very far away, and I needed him soon at her funeral, to do right things, say right things, keep the undertakers at bay. During our phone call, he said he couldn’t come to her funeral; his asthma was acting up, he had migraines. And who, he asked, was this man he’d heard I was with? He’d heard something about a man, someone I constantly now traveled with, someone more than a little famous.
Oh, he’s not real, I said. Really no men are real, they’re just heavy weights we carry around with us and take care of, because they need us, I said.
Really, he said. That’s quite an idea. And that might be exactly true. But I could use you around the house. You could help me. Here I live in this almost-mansion. I could use a woman here to help me. Now that your mother’s gone. And you don’t have to worry about her. I always wanted to ask her if she would come up here to be with me, but I didn’t think that was proper. Really. Now I see—I’m so old it doesn’t matter. To other people. Who lives with me. It doesn’t matter at all.
I’m sorry, I said. My heart’s already split in two.
Split in two? he said. But I won’t split your heart. You’ll just take care of me.
I wish I could, I said, in the most careful voice I had. But my mother is being buried this week. I thought you would at least be there for her. If not for me.
Billie, she’s gone, he said. Death is part of life. And I’ve never told you something. I was in love with her—
In my mind I could see the actor’s face, how he looked to me the way a child looked as he was picturing the perfect dashing grown-up he wanted to be. He was like Peter Pan looking in the window, wanting to be real, seeing the Darling children, and hoping to impress them with his malarkey about islands, pirates, men with hooks on their arms. He was my Peter Plan B. I’d told him so, and his laughter was like a boxed thing that came out of a Jack-in-the-Box, never to go back in, sure as Peter Pan. Love me, he’d said, before we even left the university town, and The Royal Dervish Hotel. Forget Samantha. I want you. You’re humble, and in awe of this English accent.
But my great-uncle in Boston now was on the line. My Peter Plan B was waiting for me in Cardiff.
Don’t come to the funeral, I said to my old uncle, who’d finally, now, admitted he loved my mother. If only he’d said it twenty years ago, after his wife died, we could have lived in wealth and pleasure and surety. In Boston.
Right, said my uncle.
You loved her too much, I said. Too much to even speak. You were too afraid of losing her if you told her. And now you have.
Yes, I have, Billie, he said. And I’m so ashamed.
I know, I said.
I cried later. As the actor and I were flying over the Indian Ocean, and I fell asleep the way we frightened fall asleep when our planes are crossing the ocean, and we think of sparkly places ahead on land, the lights glittering in a pattern in the night, in patterns forming for us a guide to everything beautiful and true. The lights so glittering and—blue. But, oh, dear, I also saw the beautiful twirling gnarly stems and branches of the dull green sunflowers, bushes and shrubs and plants—what would you call them?—around The Sunflower B & B, warning people it was a wonderful and terrible place to stay, the sunflowers themselves warning them it was a thicket of no better options, indecision. Lemon-Pledged Hell. And no stationery: it wasn’t that kind of place. None at all. I felt such relief as we flew high, high, over.
I, in my mind, as I woke, also suddenly saw my rich uncle’s face and my mother’s face, as if King Tut and his consort, together in death, each lying with their face up to the embalming, calming sky, their arms folded across their royal chests, asleep but awake, in separate shaped-to-their-bodies sarcophagi.
I would recommend you go to The Royal Dervish Hotel, if you are in that town. As I was. Smell the polish and wax, ask for the stationery; write to the person who needs a letter. What do you have to lose? There are parts of my heart which are still my mother’s and that town’s, but they bloom to the surface only on certain rainy days. There was the smell of the polish in The Royal Dervish Hotel which dissolved those wing-ligaments joining me and my mother, but also strengthened them, so that even now, when I need courage, I have it higher and harder and better than anyone else I know.
Except my actor. He has formed a similar heart-strength through various terrors, some of which he has related to me, and some which he will always hide. It is a certainty he will someday leave me for another, but for now I bear his brightling weight. Yes, I bear it, and I let him lean against me, and I smile when I see the magic, loving, lingering shadows in his face, greater than any shadow findable in any sort of mirror, in any sort of hotel.
Photo: L’Oiseau by ajari, licensed under CC 2.0.