Moss wondered if it would be okay to take off his flannel and work in his t shirt. The t had writing on it, it was dark gray with a color shot of Kurt Cobain looking like a question, staring out from the front, and Nirvana stencilled in black across the back, so it wasn’t as if he’d be working in his underwear, for Christ’s sake. And he thought he could do the job just as well in the t as in the black flannel, which was comfortable on the autumn streets but too close in the warmth of the lobby.
The job was simple: tend to the sickies, clean up after the hookers — the hookers tipped him — and periodically run the bums out of the lobby.
The bums in the lobby were the trickiest part of it. Massachi said that people sitting around the lobby were good for the image of the hotel, but not to let the bums just loiter for too long. So he let the ones that did things, you know, read the papers or talk with other bums, smoking cigarettes and drinking the free coffee from the coffee bar, he let them stay, but the ones who tried to sleep or to get one of the hookers to do a cheapie, he ran them out.
He liked the bum Roger, he sat on the new leatherette sofa and read the New York Times, now there was some class, Moss thought, not one of these moochers checking out the Journal-Constitution to see what number won the lotto and dreaming about some mythical piece of pie, some toilet full of dimes.
Two bums sat smoking cigarettes on the sofas in the main pit now, before the big empty fireplace, and they sipped coffee in white Styrofoam cups while Roger sat in an easy chair with his back to them reading last week’s Times.
Massachi was trying to save the hotel, Moss knew, he kept the AIDS cases on the top two floors and only let the hookers use the middle two, and in the bottom two they kept what Massachi called the real customers, like the AIDS cases and the whores weren’t really real, they were the ghosts of Christmas Future, things to come that Massachi was trying to keep from happening, that effort was the real, that desire, for the old days of the hotel that he had told Moss about, when the Empire had been in flower, that was the way Massachi had put it, when the business was in flower, like Prince Valiant.
Massachi got the AIDS cases through a deal with the Hospice Society, and he got the real customers through a deal with the Convention Center, he got the overflow of the goners and the tourists, Moss knew about the deals because Massachi had told him when he cut them. Of course, the Convention Center didn’t know about the AIDS cases, Massachi always scheduled their inspection visits on days when the TB guys from the health department weren’t around, and the Hospice Society didn’t know about the hookers, but that didn’t matter, Massachi said, “What they don’t know won’t hurt us.”
One of the johns came down the wide staircase into the lobby, and Moss wondered again how that felt, it looked like Gone with the Wind gone to seed, the staircase Clark Gable carries Scarlet up towards the end of the picture, the rich red and black colors faded now and patched in places with silver duct tape, worn through to the edge of the riser here and there, this one came down the stairs with his hand on the bannister, like he needed to steady himself, must have been some fuck, thought Moss, this guy was in a blue suit, of all things, Moss checked his Timex, it was a quarter to one, some business guy on his lunch hour, some yuppie asshole on his way back to the office after a dip at the old Empire.
He looked higher up the staircase past Mister Business and saw the whore, Polly, she stood at the head of the stairs counting money, and Moss figured it was Mister Business’s, and he thought for a second he was in a play, where the whores counted money out in public where anyone could see it, and Mister Business passed through the lobby and out the double doors without a word or a sound, the soft leather of his Italian, Moss guessed, shoes silent as cat feet on the hotel’s old marble. Moss remembered from when he was a kid seeing in some John Ford western that the Indian squaw would chew the leather to make soft mocassins for her brave, and now he saw rooms full of Italian shoemakers sitting at wooden benches in spotless, sparkling black and white Old World peasant clothes, chewing squares of brown cowhide for rich American yuppie assholes. That’s the stock market for you, he thought. All that and Polly’s pussy too. Goes to show you.
He pulled off the flannel and stuffed it into one of the mailboxes behind the desk, a second floor mailbox, a vacancy, and he shrugged, flexing his arms and resettling the t on his shoulders, because it was his birthday, and because he would ask Massachi as soon as he saw him if the t was okay for work or if he had to keep the flannel on. And it was almost his anniversary, too. He had started on the desk right after his last birthday, when they had expelled him from school and Pap said he had to go to work. He thought about it sometimes, if maybe he should have paid more attention in class and been a better student. But whenever he tyhought about it he thought he was all right not to listen to them, because in eleven years of education he had never heard them teach anything real. He looked at the bums in the pit and the double doors still swinging slightly from Mister Business’s slow exit and he thought of Polly on the stairs behind him and he decided again that this was all better anyway.
Now he had to get the key from Polly and go clean up their room, check the sheets to see if they needed to be changed and empty the trash, there would be a used condom full of jism, he thought, and he looked at Polly on the staircase, she always used a condom, she was a clean one, and he looked at the revolving door still slowly turning after Mister Business and he wondered how it felt. He had seen them, he had thrown away Polly’s used ones, handling them with his fingertips through the latex gloves that Massachi insisted he wear when he cleaned up after the whores and the AIDS cases, but he had never had one on and he wondered now again as he often had before how the band of rubber would feel wrapped around his penis, would it feel anything like Polly herself? He wondered and he thought again he might buy some and put one on, just to see.
That was when the kids came in, the boy and the girl, kids never came in here, and now here were these two kids, he figured they were lost, or looking for drugs, trouble, but then suddenly the girl said, “We’d like a room for two,” and Moss had no idea at all what floor to put them on.
He knew then they had come there to fuck, it was obvious, now that he thought of it, from the way they looked at each other while he got out the register and the boy pushed his i.d. across the old mahogany of the countertop to him, but should he put them on four or five with the hookers and the johns, because they were there to fuck, or on two and three with the traveling salesmen, because they were real. Were they real? He wondered what Massachi would say. He looked at them, and he thought maybe he should put them on six or seven, they didn’t look like they knew how to use a condom or a dental dam.
The guy was awkward and blond, and the girl looked proud of herself, mousy, brown hair and small breasts in a plain green t shirt underneath a denim jacket and a pair of baggy, torn Levis that hid a figure lean and awkward, just like the boy’s, but she had the boy, didn’t she? proud of herself, Moss thought, and he looked at the boy, he’s got her, too, not all that bad, he looked at her hips, and he wondered if the boy did have a condom hidden on him somewhere, after all. Moss pushed the register across the counter to the boy and looked back up the stairs at Polly, standing there, checking her makeup in the mirror of her compact and rubbing her red stick around her lips and pressing them together and making a kiss into the mirror, then folding it up and closing her purse, and he felt like knocking off work, suddenly, he wanted to be with Polly a little while, just to talk, he liked her, she seemed to like herself, they had talked before, late one afternoon when she had just finished up a job and the lobby was suddenly empty of all the bums and the johns and the real people, Moss had gotten her a cup of coffee and they had sat on the last real leather sofa in the main pit before the big empty fireplace and she had talked to him, he remembered, she had said, “Mossie, would you like a free one sometime?” and he had blushed, he hadn’t expected that, who would have expected that? and she had laughed softly at his embarrassment and said, “Sometimes I give free ones to people I really like. Like Christmas, you know?”
And Moss had said, “I’d like that.”
“We’d like something toward the front,” the blond kid said. “With a view of Peachtree.”
“Peachtree,” said Moss, “sure,” and he turned to the rack of mailboxes and keys and looked at them arrayed before him, and he made the kids real people and picked a key accordingly, he put them at the front on the third floor, he turned and handed the key to the boy and said, “Room 314. Any baggage?”
The boy blushed.
“No baggage?” said Moss.
“No,” said the boy, and he looked at Moss pleadingly, as if he expected to be told he couldn’t stay without baggage, and Moss nodded, it was all right, but he said, “Well, you know, you pay in advance.”
“Oh, sure,” said the boy and he reached for his wallet. “How much?”
Moss told him and he counted the money out on the counter, and Moss took it and pointed across the lobby. “The elevator’s there, but the stairs are just as easy. Three-fourteen is right at the top, and looks out onto Peachtree Street.” He looked at them. “It’s a real nice view,” he said.
They went up the stairs hand in hand and Polly passed them coming down, she paused and watched them up the stairs, and then she turned back and caught Moss looking at her with his mouth slightly open.
Moss closed his mouth and turned to the mailboxes, as if he had work to do, and Polly came across the lobby to him and said, “Is the coffee fresh?”
He turned. Her blouse was a satiny pale green thing that fit her tight, and her push-up bra squeezed her tits up into the neckline, and she wore a pair of black spandex bicyclers tights and a pair of lime green running shoes, Nikes just like the ones he wore, they were the one thing they both spent money on because they both spent real time on their feet. He said, “I can put some more on, if you want some fresh.”
“Would you, Mossie?” she said. “I got a lot of walking to do today, and then I’ve got class tonight. I could stand a cup of fresh.”
He locked the cash drawer and came out from behind the counter and crossed the lobby to the coffee bar and dumped the pots of the Bunn-o-matic into the In-sink-erator and emptied the baskets and rinsed them out and put in the filters and broke open the cellophane packages of coffee, one real and one decaf, and rinsed out the pots and ran them full of water and poured the water into the grates on top of the Bunn-o-matic and flipped the switches to brew and turned to see Polly, seated on the other side of the coffee bar and leaning over to show off her tits to him. She smiled.
Moss couldn’t not look at her tits, and she smiled bigger and said, “Do you ever want that free one I told you about?” and she resettled her shoulders in a way that made her tits move inside her top.
Moss said, “Sure, Polly.”
“Maybe while the coffee’s brewing,” she said.
Moss lost his breath, he looked at her to make sure she was serious, and she was, it was really happening, and on his birthday, too, and he swallowed his suddenly dry mouth and he said again, “Sure, Polly. But I’ve got to watch the desk.”
She turned and looked around the lobby. The two bums sat in the pit before the empty fireplace, and Roger sat behind them reading the Times, and she pointed across the lobby from the fireplace and said, “That pit’s empty. You can watch the desk from there, if you’re on top.” She turned to him. “Do you like it on top?” she said.
Moss didn’t know, because he’d never had it any way at all until then, but he said again, “Sure, Polly,” anyway.
“Come on, then,” she said, and she reached a hand to him across the counter of the coffee bar.
He took her hand and she pulled him around the corner and out into the lobby and led him across the room to the pit on the far side and she looked around at the four sofas and picked the one in the best shape and threw herself down on it and peeled off her spandex biker’s tights and pulled her top off with both hands over her head and lay there naked, smoothing out a spot for him beside her on the sofa and saying, “Don’t you think leather is sexy?”
Moss looked at her a moment. He had never seen a real one before, though he had magazines at the apartment that he would look at while he played with himself late at night while Pap drank in the outer room and cursed the government on the little black-and-white television, and of course, he watched Polly and the other whores at the hotel, watched them come and go in their costumes, and he would dream about them sometimes, in dreams he liked and longed for when he didn’t have them.
He had wanted one of the dreams the night before, special, for his birthday, he had wanted one in particular, about the girl with wavy red hair like Polly’s, with the huge breasts and the long smooth legs and the so serious face who came to him in the water, the water where somehow he could breathe, but he had awakened that morning from his deepest, dreamless sleep, disappointed, and now, here was Polly, with her arms reaching out to him and her legs parted for him, and he was getting hard in his pants, and he took a look around the lobby, the bums were smoking cigarettes and Roger was reading the book review and he pulled his t off over his head and lay down on top of her and she undid his pants expertly and plunged her hands inside and took hold of him, smiling at him hugely as she paused and checked him out, and she said, “Oh, baby, you’re so nice and clean,” she smiled into his face and said, “Here, let me play with you a while,” and he grew in her hands and she said, “Yeah, you’re a big boy, aren’t you?” and he was excited and he didn’t want to come, he didn’t want her to know he had never been with a woman before, he wanted to be experienced, like Mister Business comfortable in his Italian shoes, and she reached down to her little purse on the floor beside the sofa and got a condom from it, she tore the foil open, smiling at him, and she held it up for him to see, it was red-and-white striped, like the toothpaste, and she rolled it onto him and pushed his jeans down around his knees and held him hard in her hand and smiled into his amazed face and said, “Far out, baby,” and slipped him inside herself.
He said, “Seventeen.”
“Hey!” she cried happily, “I ain’t been seventeen in seven years!” and he shushed her with his hand to her red mouth, scared someone might hear and come to investigate, and she moved his hand away and smiled and began to rock him as he lay on top of her, and he rose up at one point and glanced over the back of the sofa at the desk and saw it standing empty and alone, saw the cigarette smoke rising from the pit before the fireplace on the other side of the lobby, saw Roger squint hard into the arts section of the Times and draw the page out and carefully tear an article from it, and he wondered fleetingly what the story was, and then he felt Polly’s hands on his throat, pulling him back to her, he lay down again and rocked her in his arms and he came, he felt like bells ringing under water and not like the magazines at all, music floated through him and he wanted to sing, the big lobby of the Empire and the thought of listeners or Massachi stifling his cry, and then suddenly his feet cramped, and the pain shot through his arches and up his calves and he said, “Oh, oh, oh,” rising up above Polly, and she smiled and said, “Yeah, yeah,” and he had to stand up, and she said, “What’s the matter, baby?” and he stood up with his hands crossed before his erect penis and his jeans fell down around his Nikes and he began to pace to and fro before her, in little baby steps on his twisted feet and with his penis erect inside the red-and-white striped condom, and he heard the front doors turning, and he looked across the lobby in time to see Massachi coming in, and he dove for Polly on the sofa and she laughed and said, “Baby!” and he put his hand over her mouth and said, “Shhhh!” and he looked into her eyes, wide and over made up and staring at him. He took his hand from her mouth, and she said, “What the fuck’s wrong with you?”
“Massachi’s here,” he whispered.
“So?” she said.
“I can’t let Massachi find me like this.”
“Why not?” said Polly. “I’ve found him like this plenty of times.”
“What?” said Moss.
“Sure, hell,” she said. “He gets free ones all the time.”
“From everybody.” She shifted underneath him. She said, “What the hell gives with you, anyway? You get up and take walks when you fuck?”
“My feet cramped,” he said. He eased up and peeked over the back of the sofa. Massachi was at the desk, with his back to the lobby, looking through some mail he had brought with him. Moss lay back down, and Polly pushed her tits into his face. She said, “Nice, huh?”
“Oh, you’re beautiful, Polly,” he said. “I’ve got to get dressed.”
“Okay,” she said. “But I don’t know if I’m going to feel like another free one with you.”
He wanted another free one. He said, “Hey, Polly, I’m sorry, I really am.”
She looked up at him.
He said, “You’re the best woman I’ve ever had.”
She looked at him, she said, “How many women have you had?”
He looked into her made-up eyes, and he said, “Just you.”
She softened, she said, “Just me?”
He nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “But I want another free one, I really do, I want to make you feel as good as you make me.”
She said, “Just me?” again.
“Yeah,” he said.
She looked at him, she put her hand through his hair. She said, “That’s kind of sweet, you know.”
“Is it?” he said.
“Kind of,” she shrugged. “You really want another free one, don’t you?”
“I sure do,” he said.
“Okay,” she said. “But not today. I got too much work to do. You wouldn’t like that anyway.”
He said, “I love you, Polly.”
She looked up at him. She tousled his hair and said, “Of course you do.”
He rolled off her and onto the floor and pulled his jeans back up his legs and put on his t. Then he stood up and crossed the lobby to the coffee bar. He took a position behind it, and he coughed.
At the desk, Massachi turned and saw him. “There you are,” he said.
And he felt the condom, still on his penis, tight around the root of it and squeezing him.
Massachi came across the lobby to him, carrying the mail, and he set it down on the coffee bar and said, “Give me a cup, black.”
“Decaf?” said Moss, holding his hand before the two pots.
“Leaded,” said Massachi, and he shuffled through the mail while Moss poured him up, piling it into two stacks, the junk and the real, and then he pulled out one letter, already opened, and held it up for Moss to see as Moss slid his cup of coffee across the Formica counter.
Massachi said, “There’s a convention at the Radisson next month, and we’re picking up the overflow.” He held the letter up like a prize and his eyebrows rose high on his head. “Things are looking up.”
Over his shoulder and across the lobby, Polly stood up and looked at Moss. She shifted inside her top and adjusted it on her shoulders. She smiled at him and waved. He nodded to her, and Massachi saw him and turned and saw Polly, she kept waving and he waved to her with the letter in his hand, he called across the room, “Things are looking up,” and she smiled hugely and he smiled back at her, and Moss could tell that she was really waving at him, that she was smiling at him, and he knew then he would get another free one, and he poured her a cup of coffee, with cream and three sugars, the way she liked it, and he held it up for her to see.
Massachi turned and picked up his coffee and sipped it. He looked over the rim of the glass at Moss, he studied him carefully, puzzled by something, and Moss shifted from foot to foot, the condom encircling him painfully, and he wondered when Massachi would leave so he could remove it, and then Massachi solved his puzzle and he said, “Where’s your shirt? Put on your shirt. Christ, Moss, this is a hotel, not a pool hall. Get real.”