In a featureless hotel room in a town from her past, a woman sat on the edge of the bed, waiting. She was still in her travel clothes, her rolling suitcase parked upright near the wall, her cell phone silent on the bed next to her. She glanced at the screen to confirm it had service, even though she’d checked it the minute before. The girl at the check-in desk had granted her request for two room keys, and these she unconsciously arranged into the shape of a heart, their dotted chains and green plastic tabs coming together in the middle. Nancy was waiting. For a call. For a knock on the door. But the person she’d flown here to see was dead.
When she mentioned the funeral as the reason for her obligatory visit, the hotel shuttle driver politely expressed sympathy. But he seemed more interested in the San Francisco address on her luggage tag, and spent the short drive from the airport telling her about visiting Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge on his honeymoon years ago.
The hotel staff politely but mechanically assured Nancy that if there was anything they could do to make her stay more comfortable, she should just ask. She wanted to ask them to be less friendly and inquisitive. When traveling for business she had sometimes contemplated inventing a story, but she couldn’t bring herself to lie, even to complete strangers.
The front desk girl took notice of Nancy’s alumni credit card. Quite used to people in this part of the country asking if she had attended college in South Carolina, Nancy explained that USC was, in fact, the University of Southern California. She even smiled politely when the clerk said, “Isn’t that funny? I wonder if anyone ever shows up at the wrong college!”
In the little hotel room, another minute went by and Nancy looked at her phone again. It still had service, and it still showed no sign of life. Lying next to her was a small folder from the hotel, open to reveal its contents. A breakfast coupon, two drink coupons, and an advertisement for tonight’s entertainment in the lounge. Nancy had seen the same ad propped on a wooden easel in the lobby:
Marvelous Mister Murray
He will astound and amaze you!
The Heartland’s most famous clairvoyant.
Impressions Lounge, 6:00 p.m.
The image of the entertainer watching her with those deep eyes reminded Nancy that she had nothing to do until her cousins were to pick her up the next morning. Her colleagues at work had vowed to make contact only in an emergency, and she hadn’t told any of the relatives she was coming in on the early flight.
One more glance and a quick check to verify that the phone’s ringer wasn’t turned off, and Nancy switched herself into travel mode. She considered herself a savvy traveler. Her clothes were chosen for comfort, not style, and for efficient movement through airport security. She packed light, but always packed a swimming suit. As she arranged her belongings in the pressboard dresser, she saw that the sun still had a few hours in the sky and there was an unoccupied pool out back. It was small, but clean and blue with a few white deck chairs, neatly arranged.
Thirty minutes later, Nancy was alone on the pool deck, watching ripples smooth across the surface of the water, squeezing her short hair dry with a tiny hand towel. Another towel was draped over her shoulder, not large enough to cover the delicate tattoo, three letters spelling Amy in a flowing script, an ink ribbon encircling the name, and a date.
Nancy closed her eyes to the sun. After a few moments, she heard the rattling of wheels across pebbled concrete. She guessed, then confirmed, it was a hotel employee pushing a wheeled rubber garbage can. She was collecting towels left by guests.
“Hello ma’am. It is nice sunny day, yes?” said the woman. “It is not usual we open pool so early in the season. You enjoy, okay?”
“Yes, thank you very much.” Nancy watched the stocky little woman gather a few more towels and plastic drink cups, then she closed her eyes and lay her head back.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” The clattering of the wheels had stopped nearby.
“Yes?” Nancy wondered if perhaps she had brought the wrong towels to the pool.
“Your skin, it is so beautiful! Where are you from?” the little woman inquired. “I mean, your family. Your family is from Sweden or Norway, yes?”
“Oh, Germany actually. My Grandparents came from Germany.”
“Such pretty skin. You’re so lucky. You should thank your grandparents.”
“Oh, pardon me, ma’am. I’m so sorry.”
“Oh, no, my grandpa lived to a ripe old age. He just passed. He was 96.”
“He is in heaven, yes? He watch over you.”
“Sure, I guess so.”
Back in the hotel room, Nancy dressed and slipped the still and silent cell phone into the pocket of her cardigan. The folder was still on the bed, and she reached to extract the two drink tickets. As she passed her reflection in the wall mirror, she nodded to herself. “Not bad,” she said quietly before un-latching the door.
“What’ll it be?” The lone bartender was middle aged, probably her same age, Nancy surmised. She didn’t usually sit at the bar, but he’d beckoned to her and seemed harmless.
“Just a glass of red wine. I’ve got these coupons. What do you recommend?” She knew she’d seem more sophisticated if she expressed a preference, but her husband had always selected the wine.
“I think I’ve got just the ticket.” He poured into an oversized glass that reminded Nancy of her ladies book club. She had brought the current reading selection with her and it sat on top of the bar, a ribbon hanging out near the end. Unlike her married friends, she had plenty of time to finish the assigned book each month.
Nancy took a sip of wine and surveyed the room. A few more hotel guests had arrived and were sitting alone or in pairs at small tables. She knew the look of those traveling on business. Many were still wearing their suits from the day. A trio of barrel-chested thirty-somethings in matching polo shirts had settled in with beers and a bowl of popcorn.
“You going to stay for the psychic?” The bartender asked her.
“When does he start?” She knew it was 6:00. “Is he worth it?”
“Oh, yeah, he’s amazing. Do you believe someone could read your thoughts and tell you your future?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like that. Except on television. Then you figure they have tricks or something.”
“Murray’s the real deal. I’ve seen him a bunch of times and it blows me away.”
Nancy glanced toward the entry door and fingered the cover of her book. “I guess I’ll sit at that table over there.” She felt as if she were asking permission.
He carried her wine glass and a bowl of popcorn to the table on a little tray. Nancy chose the bench seat with a view of the room and an unobstructed view of the entrance. Her open book signaled an interest in being alone.
She didn’t look up when the psychic entered the room. A microphone was turned on with a buzz. Soft scratches and plosives indicated it was being tested. The background music was lowered, and the mix changed to new age instrumentals. Without looking right at him, Nancy discerned a man in black slacks and a black t-shirt moving around the far end of the bar. She stole a few glances and saw the bartender filling a glass with the soda gun and placing it on a cocktail napkin. The man was fit and attractive, with a shaved head and a neat beard. She wondered if he might be a personal trainer during daylight hours. Tonight he was Mister Murray.
Nearly every table was occupied in the small lounge, and attention had turned to the man in black. He held the wireless mic at his side as he worked the room, stopping at each table for brief conversations. Most of the patrons reacted with smiles and short bursts of laughter. The three young men in their company polos drunkenly pushed and pointed at each other, volunteering a companion as a subject. Murray moved on.
When he got to her table, Nancy was prepared to engage in a little banter. She felt a tingle as he sat in the empty seat facing her.
“So, what’s your story?” His voice, it was as if she knew him somehow. From any other man, the question would have screamed pickup line. Nancy summoned her emotional shield and squelched the impulse to download everything he wanted to know.
“I don’t have a story,” she replied.
“Oh, everyone has a story.” He said, as if he had all the time in the world.
Faces were looking their way, but Nancy was immersed in the eyes of the man before her.
“I’d like to get to know you,” he said.
“There’s really not much to know.”
“I feel like I already know you.”
Nancy looked at her wine glass. She had only taken two sips, but she was feeling a warmth envelop her as if she’d downed a snifter of brandy.
“You’re waiting for someone.” Murray was now speaking into the microphone, but Nancy was only aware of him speaking directly to her.
“No…” Nancy glanced away for the first time since he’d sat down. “No, I’m from out of town.”
“There’s someone, though. Someone you want to see. It’s not the reason you’re here, but there’s someone you’d like to see walk through that door.”
Murray didn’t look away, but Nancy reactively glanced toward the lounge entrance. There was no one there.
“I’m getting a very strong feeling.” He paused, then went on, “you’ve suffered a loss.”
Nancy turned back to him and her jaw dropped a bit. Then the microphone came into focus and she thought about the reality of who he was, and where she was.
“Life is full of loss,” she countered, feeling her defenses raise. “People are going to funerals every day.”
“Oh, yes, that’s why you’re here, isn’t it? To say goodbye.” He looked into her eyes, capturing her. “A funeral. Someone from your past…a family member?”
“He was very old.”
“And old people die. I know.” Murray was the only person in the room to her. “But children…children aren’t supposed to die.”
Nancy used her tongue to moisten her lips. “No…” It was the only word she could muster. Then again she said, “No…” But this time it sounded pleading.
“Some losses are so painful,” he said. “We carry them with us always.”
“Always.” Nancy couldn’t remove her eyes from his. Reflexively she wrapped her arms around herself, her left hand smoothing the wool over her tattoo.
“Your grandfather.” Murray was leaning back slightly. Nancy looked at him, tilting her head just a bit.
“I told you, he…”
“Yes, I know. But his spirit is so near. Sometimes this happens with the recently departed. Sometimes they stay a while. I feel his spirit in this room.”
“How do you know?”
“Were you close to your grandfather?”
“It’s been hard…”
“…being so far away.” It felt natural that he could finish her sentences. “He has a message for you.”
“How do you know it’s him?”
“There’s such a resemblance.” Murray was looking into the distance now, but Nancy was fixated on his face. “He was a tall, handsome man in his youth. You share so many features. He’s very proud of you.”
“He never said that…”
“He regrets it now.” Murray’s eyes moved back to Nancy. “He doesn’t have much time with us. He has a message for you.”
“What is he saying?”
“I need to concentrate. His accent…he wasn’t German, was he?”
Murray reached over and touched Nancy’s arm. As he ran his hand from her elbow to her wrist, she felt herself relax. Then he was holding her hand and it didn’t feel at all like a stranger touching her.
“Your grandfather. He has a message about a child. A child named Amy.”
Nancy gulped a breath.
“Amy…has he seen her?”
Nancy could only manage a weak, “yes.”
“But you lost her. She was young, wasn’t she?”
Nancy just nodded and looked down at the wine glass and the open book on the table. The words on the pages danced and swam in front of her, as if an animator had brought them to life. Murray was still holding her hand. When he squeezed it, Nancy looked up. His face welcomed her.
“Is there something you want to say to Amy?”
“I love her.” Nancy blinked as tears pooled in her eyes. “Amy, I miss you so much.”
“He’s saying something.”
“You’re a good mother.” Murray was looking beyond her again. “Amy misses you very much.”
“Is he with her?”
“He will watch over her.”
Nancy began to breathe again. She took in shallow breaths, feeling the tingle of fresh oxygen down her limbs and across her scalp.
“The one you’re waiting for…” Murray was back from beyond.
“He’s not coming?” Nancy said it, but she didn’t want to believe it.
“Have you spoken to him?”
“I called…” Nancy felt like a school girl confessing an infatuation.
“You grew up together?”
“High school. It’s been a long time.”
“But you went away. You left your home town for something else.”
“There was nothing here for me.”
“Of course not. I feel you found yourself in another place. In the west. I’m seeing a big city. Los…”
“…Angeles. But I was only there…”
“…for a few years. You wanted him to visit you there. To start again?”
“No. I didn’t think about him.” Nancy began to look from Murray to the entrance and back.
“I understand. You can’t admit it to yourself now.” Murray’s eyes were narrowed and he maintained laser focus.
“But he left me first.” For a moment, Nancy wondered why she was confessing so much to this man.
“He doesn’t know about Amy, does he?”
Nancy took in a gulp of air, then stopped breathing.
“Of course. It’s becoming more clear…the connection.” Murray tightened his grip on her hand. “You want to tell him.”
“I don’t know.” Nancy gasped. Her eyes had clouded over and she could only perceive a haze of light and color.
“You want to tell him.” Murray was revealing the truth in her soul.
“He left me.”
“You were married.” Murray sat back and let go of her hand. Nancy brought her hands together, her fingers unconsciously rubbing her naked ring finger.
“Oh, no.” Nancy said. “We weren’t married.”
“No. You married someone else. But now I’m feeling a sadness. A loneliness. You don’t want to be alone. What do you want to tell him?”
One last look. Nancy allowed herself one last look toward the entry door. And standing there…standing with his hands in his pockets, his square jaw set, his eyes scanning the lounge…he was there. Nancy blinked. He was still there. She looked at Murray, then bowed her head and the tears began to flow.
“The baby…” she choked. “The baby…was his.”
“The baby…Amy?” Murray was leaning in, his forehead nearly touching Nancy’s. “He never knew?”
Before she could answer, he was calling out to her. He was walking toward her. He was talking to her: “Hey Nance! Oh my gosh, how long has it been?”
For one last moment Murray held Nancy in his psychic grip. “You drew him here,” he soothed. “You are more powerful that you could ever imagine.” Then, standing and addressing the room, microphone to his lips, shoulders back, gesturing to the man walking towards them, “You saw it with your own eyes, folks, right here tonight. The power of the mind is an awesome thing. Thank you very much for your kind attention, everyone.”
The applause started slow, then built to an echoing wave that was a thunder pulsing in Nancy’s ears. Murray had broken the spell. She felt herself floating over a crevasse between reality and the beyond. Through the tears she watched the cocktail lounge psychic turn and walk toward the bar. He scooped up his glass of soda water, the little square napkin clinging to its bottom, and disappeared through a service door.
Then there was just a bar, a room full of inebriates, a glass of wine, and the book that was her only friend. The boy she’d loved was standing before her as a middle-aged man with less hair, more bulge, and his mouth wide open.
“How did you get here?” Nancy demanded of him.
“Why are you here? Why did you come?” She looked around the room, meeting the eyes of her audience, forcing them back to their drinks. The bartender made a move as if to come over, but her glare stopped him.
As her lover from decades past pulled back the empty chair, Nancy struggled to stand, jostling the table and sloshing wine in the glass. Popcorn spilled from the bowl. He reached to steady her. She twisted away from his touch. He turned to watch as she fled through the doorway that had brought so much longing moments before.
Nancy stumbled into the bright lobby and slipped on the polished tile. She paused mid-flight to regain her balance. Her man in black, Mr. Murray, was leaning on the check-in desk in intimate conversation with the girl who’d given her the keys. And there was a third person. Nancy recognized the shuttle driver. Murray was handing them envelopes. He was laughing. And he said to them, “Good job, guys. Tonight was one of our best shows ever!”
Copyright Liz Behlke 2016