This excerpt is from my novel, CONFESSIONS OF AN HONEST MAN. It occurs when my protagonist has just returned from Afghanistan. He is struggling to free himself from addiction and is living in a skid row hotel in San Francisco.
The Spook Lady
1983: The Arlen Hotel, San Francisco
It’s almost time for the Spook Lady to start. Aaron looks at the hands of the clock. They are supposed to be luminous, but the tired green radium barely shows that it’s four thirty.
He turns off the light and listens to the sounds of the hotel and the city beyond. In this not-quite-dawn hour, the world is like a rattle snake anticipating the sun. It’s too cold to move. It can be poked and prodded without consequence. But in another hour, one would not want to prod. And in another two hours, one would not even come close.
Across the hall, in Room 303, the speed freaks are arguing about who got more dope. Upstairs, in the room directly overhead, someone is pacing evenly and steadily back and forth, signature of god only knows what despairing thoughts.
Distant rock music. It never ends, the sonic pollution. By ten it will be pounding on his walls, thumpety thump thumpety thump.
Now, there is sufficient silence to hear the voice of the Spook Lady. She lives next door in room 304. Since he checked into the hotel, two weeks ago, Aaron could set his clock by the beginning of her four thirty harangue.
He never hears an answering voice. Only the woman enters or leaves the room. During the day, she takes her spot outside the hotel door, dressed like a hooker from the thirties. Stamped with utter loneliness, she waits. She looks seventy, maybe seventy five years old.
She wears the same outfit every day: a vivid blue dress, elbow length mauve gloves, lace-up black heels, fake carnation perched atop brittle, dryed hair.
She looks as if she’s waiting for a trick .Maybe she has a clientele, Aaron speculates.. Nothing in this place would surprise me. Got a double amputee male hooker in room 301. A professional safe cracker in 297. Assorted psychotics. A woman who makes tin foil helmets to block CIA transmissions from satellites.
The Spook Lady waits for her vanished lover, the man she beats with her words, every night at four thirty a.m.
“You damn mothafucka!” There she goes, punctual as a Japanese train. “Who was that I seen you.....” The words fade in and out. Aaron turns to his other side, groaning, not wanting to hear it, needing sleep. He pulls the blanket up across his shoulder and looks out the window at absolutely nothing. There is a wall inches from his window. At night it sheds no light, it’s just a piece of tar.
“Money?” the woman cries. “What fuckin’ money? You don’t fuckin’.......” Bad tempered, jealous, she scours her ancient paramour. Does his ghost materialize in the hour before dawn? Does he wear clothes sixty years gone? Spats, a cane, diamond stickpin. Do his white teeth gleam? Does his gold ring flash?
“A big man?,” the crone derides hoarsely. “Ha ha, don’t make me fuckin laugh. Hey, don’t drop those.....oh you bastard!.......well, that’s Jim so and so and he can eat my....”
Night after night, this goes on. It lasts about twenty minutes, then tapers off into silence. Names flow in and out of the ethers. Old debts, old crimes. Old revenge.
When I leave at eight this morning, she’ll be there, Aaron knows. At her place by the door. She never returns my look, never meets my eyes, never acknowledges the essential fact of neighbor-ness. Her eyes are fixed on an invisible street, invisible buildings, invisible people.
She has observed the same routine every day that I’ve been here. Same place, same clothes, same fake flower,once crimson but going utterly white from the bleach of the sun. Buses wait at the light. Cars pile up, then surge forward honking and roaring. The city’s life is flung like an acid onto the pavement. The Spook Lady sees big black Nash Sedans, high rounded Pontiacs instead of Hondas and Camaros. When the sun sets, she goes to her room and waits for her lover in the mists of damaged memory.
Aaron wakes every night at four twenty five,exactly, taut with tortured anticipation. He can’t help it. The Spook Lady has become one of the denizens of his insomnia.
She is suddenly loud. “Gimme that! Hey!” Something goes thump!
Aaron’s ears are like huge radar disks, pulling away from his face, elastic, stretching.
It’s quiet for a moment. Hotel sounds emerge from the background. Then he hears the woman weeping. “Ooooh!” She moans. “You black hearted son of a bitch!”
What did he do? Did he hit her? Is there a red hand print on her face, slowly fading? Can the shades of the past force blood through capillaries?
Sound of glass shattering, another thump, right against the wall behind Aaron’s head. Then she laughs. “Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha.” The indivdual “Ha”s toll like a cathedral bell. It is a sound so devoid of mirth that his skin crawls.
At eight, when he leaves the hotel in the morning, he can barely glance in her direction. He has been listening to a gaping red wound, one that pulsates and festers and never heals.
She doesn’t know. She doesn’t care.
In her mind, Aaron is the ghost.