Best Worst Year: Episode 69 (Or, Hotel Sterling)


His home burned to the ground before you knew him, but you remember how smoke wandered from West River to South Franklin. Listless and violent. So in tune with this caged heart of a desperate rust belt city slowly swallowing its children whole. From a St. Louis club stage, all these years later, he recounts his snake-bit luck, a jinx revisted only hours earlier when someone broke into their tour van. Thieves removed the door locks to ensure someone would have to spend the night in the van to keep it safe.

Sleeping in a Buick. Truckers fish
breakfast from vending machines.

Twin teutonic stone eagles stand as gatekeepers to your thoughts of home. It’s a benign vigilance–passive restraint like running fingers through a lukewarm waterfall. Split sole shoes walking over the Market Street Bridge bathed in mayflies. A swarm rises like fog from the Susquehanna River. At the crest of this bridge, Hotel Sterling would rise to meet you, but it’s been demolished. A victim more of neglect than progress. When your phone rings you are brought back inside yourself. A bay window, eleven floors up and overlooking the hotel parking lot. You lean into the glass and let the cold air diffuse through your skin. This is how you negotiate with memory tonight.

Coal dust hands. Mistake ash for snow.

So many Sundays where bottles, crosses, windows, and pages inhabit the same space. Escape, capture, and recovery–you’re sitting on the fire escape of your old office. Weeds have overtaken the brick labyrinth in the backyard. A failed experiment laid at your doorstep by students slowly walling up good intentions within themselves. Later that year, outside a bar, one of them tells you he is in the business of self preservation, but you know better. Before you fill the vessel, you have to empty it.

The bartender pours you both a shot. Arc of a diver on the news.

Make a list of needs in pencil and systematically erase away the want. Fold the hotel stationery into a paper airplane. Don’t fret over whether or not it can fly. Weigh its nose down with a paperclip. Make your cup of single serving soup in the hotel microwave. Wash your face in the sink, but after you’re done, leave the water running. Remove the curtains from the windows. Removes the bedsheets. The pillowcases from pillows. The hangers from the closet. Fill the bathtub with the curtains, the bedsheets, the pillowcases, and the hangers. Turn on the shower. Sit in the doorway of the bathroom. Hold the paper airplane by its tail between your thumb and forefinger. Wait. Fold the paper airplane into a neatly considered square. Use the paperclip to pin it to your pocket. Turn off the taps. Remove the hangers, the pillowcase, the bedsheets, and the curtains from the shower. Return the hangers to the closet. The pillowcases to the pillows. The bedsheets to the bed. The curtains to the windows. Finish your soup. Leave the hotel room. Prop the door open. Leave your car keys with the front desk. Ask the concierge about the weather. Leave the hotel. Walk to the nearest bus stop. Unpin the note from your pocket. Unfold the hotel stationery. Wait for the bus.

Thirteen Gideon Bibles in a dumpster. Police caution tape sags between telephone poles.

You showed up for your last day of work and there were two empty milk crates on your desk, and a box of books, neatly packed for you. The shelves were empty–an outline of dust where your collected neglect marked time. Months later, you would think of those particle board institutional shelves with the dusty demarcated line as the high-watermark of the low point of your thirties. Diplomas and photos are lowered like flags at the end of the war. Some passing smiles, humble exchanges of hands and arms and looks. You start to drive home but decide to take the long way, actively forgetting how the downtown traffic is being redirected around the Hotel Sterling. Everything in this town is on the verge of collapsing into self. Later that night, you are doubled over a toilet, emptying the last of your steady paychecks burning a hole in your stomach.

Friday night at the record store. Pope Killdragon listens to confessions.

He leaves the stage through the crowd and embraces everyone he passes. Words escape you, and for once, you aren’t afraid to let them go. You were homesick without knowing it, but it’s okay. These scars reveal miracles for everyone patient enough to heal.

Bridge tattooed on a forearm. A mutual friend you haven’t seen in years.

Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals including The North American Review, [PANK] Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and The Minnesota Review. Follow him on twitter @whoismisterjim.


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