Authors: Nita Prose
I grabbed the door handle and stepped inside. A shopkeeper approached me instantly.
“You look like you need some help,” she said.
“Yes,” I replied, a bit breathlessly. “I need an outfit posthaste. I have a date tonight with a subject of potential romantic intrigue.”
“Whoa,” she said. “You’re in luck. Romantic intrigue is my specialty.”
About twenty-two minutes later, I was leaving the store with a large lemon-yellow bag containing a polka-dot top, something called “skinny jeans,” and a pair of “kitten heels” that did not have kittens on them so far as I could tell. I nearly fainted when the shopkeeper announced the total, but it seemed a breach of decorum to back out of payment when the items were already bagged. I paid using my debit card, then rushed back to the hotel. I tried not to think about the rent money I’d just spent and how I’d replace it.
I was back at work at 12:54, just in time to start work again. Mr. Preston did a double-take when he saw my shopping bag, but he refrained from comment. I hurried down the marble stairs to the housekeeping quarters, where I stowed my new purchases in my locker. Back to work I went, Cheryl never the wiser.
That night, at exactly six
, I showed up in the hotel lobby dressed in my new outfit. I’d even managed to style my hair a bit with a curling iron from the lost and found, making it sleek and smooth the way I’d seen Giselle do with her flat iron. I watched as Rodney entered the lobby and looked for me, his eyes brushing right past me and then back, because he failed to recognize me at first glance.
He approached. “Molly?” he said. “You look…different.”
“Different good or bad?” I asked. “I put my trust in a local shopkeeper, and I hope she didn’t lead me astray. Fashion is not my forte.”
“You look…great.” Rodney’s eyes darted about the room. “Let’s get out of here, okay? We can go to the Olive Garden down the street.”
I could not believe it! It was fate. A sign. The Olive Garden is my very favorite restaurant. It was Gran’s favorite too. Every year, on her birthday and on mine, we’d ready ourselves for a big night out together, complete with endless garlic bread and free salad. The last time we went to the Olive Garden together, Gran turned seventy-five. We ordered two glasses of Chardonnay to celebrate.
“To you, Gran, on three-quarters of a century, one quarter left to go, at a minimum!”
“Hear, hear!” said Gran.
The fact that Rodney had chosen my favorite dining establishment? We were star-crossed, meant to be.
Mr. Preston eyed us as we exited the hotel. “Molly, are you all right?” he asked as he offered his arm, steadying me as I wobbled uncertainly down the staircase in my new feline heels. Rodney had raced down the stairs ahead of me and was waiting on the sidewalk, checking his phone.
“Not to worry, Mr. Preston,” I said. “I’m very well indeed.”
Once we were at the bottom step, Mr. Preston assumed a low tone. “You’re not going out with him, are you?” he asked.
“As a matter of fact,” I whispered, “I am. So if you’ll excuse me…” I gave his arm a little squeeze and then teetered up to Rodney on the sidewalk.
“I’m ready. Let’s go,” I said. Rodney began walking without glancing up from the important, last-minute business he was taking care of on his phone. Once we were away from the hotel, he put his phone away and slowed his pace.
“Sorry about that,” he said. “A bartender’s work is never done.”
“That’s quite all right,” I replied. “Yours is a very important job. You’re an integral bee in the hive.”
I hoped he was impressed by my reference to Mr. Snow’s employee-training seminar, but if he was, he did not show it.
All the way to the restaurant, I babbled on about any and all topics of interest I could think of—the advantages of real feather dusters versus synthetic ones, the waitresses he worked with who rarely remembered my name and, of course, my love for the Olive Garden.
After what seemed like a long time but was probably only sixteen and a half minutes, we arrived at the entrance of the Olive Garden. “After you,” Rodney said, politely opening the door for me.
A helpful young waitress seated us in a perfectly romantic booth tucked to one side of the restaurant.
“Want a drink?” Rodney asked.
“That sounds lovely. I’ll have a glass of Chardonnay. Will you join me?”
“I’m more of a beer kind of guy.”
The waitress returned and we ordered our drinks. “Can we order food right away?” Rodney asked. He looked at me. “Ready?”
Indeed I was, ready for anything. I ordered what I always ordered. “The Tour of Italy, please,” I said. “Because how can you go wrong with a trio of lasagna, fettucine, and chicken parmigiana?” I smiled at Rodney in a way I hoped was somewhat coquettish.
He looked down at his menu. “Spaghetti and meatballs.”
“Yes, sir. Would you like free salad and garlic bread?”
“No, that’s fine,” Rodney answered, which, I’ll admit, was a minor disappointment.
The waitress then left and we were alone under the warm ambient glow of the pendant light. Taking Rodney in from such a close vantage point made me forget all about salad and garlic bread.
He rested his elbows on the table, an etiquette faux pas that was forgivable this one time since it offered me a fine view of his forearms.
“Molly, you’re probably wondering what was going on today. With those men. In that hotel room. I didn’t want you to go away thinking anything bad or to start talking about what you saw. I wanted a chance to explain.”
The waitress returned with our drinks.
“Here’s to us,” I said, holding my wine stem delicately between two fingers as Gran had taught me (
A lady never touches the bowl—it leaves unsightly fingerprints
). Rodney picked up his beer stein and clinked it against my glass. Being quite thirsty, he gulped half of his beverage before setting it back down on the tabletop with a clang.
“Like I was saying,” he said. “I wanted to explain what you saw today.”
He paused and stared at me.
“You really do have the most arresting blue eyes,” I said. “I hope you don’t find it inappropriate of me to point that out.”
“Funny. Someone else told me the same thing recently. Anyhow, here’s what I need you to know. Those two men in that room? They’re Juan Manuel’s friends, not mine. Do you understand?”
“I think that’s lovely,” I said. “I’m glad he’s made some friends here. His entire family is in Mexico, as you know. And I think he may feel lonely from time to time. That’s something I can understand, having felt lonely myself from time to time. Not now, of course. I don’t feel lonely at all in this particular moment.”
I took a deep, delicious sip from my glass.
“So here’s the thing you probably don’t know about my buddy Juan Manuel,” Rodney said. “He’s actually not a documented immigrant at the moment. His work permit ran out a while back and he’s now working under the table at the hotel. Mr. Snow doesn’t know that. If Juan Manuel were caught, he’d be kicked out of the country and would never be able to send money home ever again. You know how important his family is to him, right?”
“I do,” I said. “Family is very important. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Not so much,” he said. “Mine disowned me years ago.” He took another gulp of his beer, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” I said. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would turn down a chance to be familial with a fine man like Rodney.
“Right,” he said. “So those two men you saw in that room? That bag they had? That was Juan Manuel’s bag. It wasn’t theirs. It definitely wasn’t mine. It was Juan Manuel’s. Got it?”
“I understand, yes. We all have baggage.” I paused, allowing ample time for Rodney to pick up on my clever double entendre. “That’s a joke,” I explained. “Those men were literally carrying baggage, but the expression usually refers to psychological baggage. You see?”
“Yeah. Okay. So the thing is that Juan Manuel’s landlord figured out his papers expired. He kicked him out of his apartment a while back.
Now he has nowhere to live. I’ve been helping Juan Manuel sort things out. You know, like with the law, because I know people. I do what I can to help him make ends meet. All of this is a secret, Molly. Are you good at keeping secrets?”
He locked eyes with me, and I felt the great privilege of being his confidante.
“Of course I can keep a secret,” I said. “Especially yours. I have a locked box near my heart for all of your confidences,” I said as I mimed locking a box on my chest.
“Cool,” he replied. “So there’s more. It’s like this. Every night, I’ve secretly been putting Juan Manuel up in a different room at the hotel so that he doesn’t have to sleep on the streets. But no one can know, you understand? If anyone found out what I was doing…”
“You’d be in a lot of trouble. And Juan Manuel would be homeless,” I said.
“Yeah. Exactly,” he replied.
Yet again, Rodney was proving what a good man he was. Out of the goodness of his heart, he was helping a friend. I was so moved I was at a loss for words.
Fortunately, the waitress returned and filled the silence with my Tour of Italy platter and Rodney’s spaghetti and meatballs.
“Bon appétit,” I said.
I had a few extremely satisfying mouthfuls, then put my fork down. “Rodney, I’m very impressed by you. You’re a fine man.”
Rodney’s mouth bulged with a meatball. “I try,” he said, chewing and swallowing. “But I could use your help, Molly.”
“Help how?” I asked.
“It’s getting harder for me to know which hotel rooms are vacant. Let’s just say there are key staffers who used to slip me info, but they might not be so into me anymore. But you…you’re beyond suspicion, and you know which rooms are free every night. Plus, you’re so good at cleaning things up, just like you proved today. It would be amazing if you could tell me which room is empty on any given night and if you
could make sure you’re the one to clean it before and after we—I mean, Juan Manuel and his friends—stay there. You know, just make sure there’s no sign of anyone having ever been there at all.”
I carefully placed my cutlery on the edge of my plate. I took another sip of wine. I could feel the effects of the beverage reaching my extremities and my cheeks, making me feel liberated and uninhibited, two things I hadn’t felt in…well, as long as I could recall.
“I would be delighted to help you in any way I can,” I said.
He put his fork down with a clatter and reached for my hand. The sensation was pleasingly electric. “I knew I could count on you, Molly,” he said.
It was a lovely compliment. I was struck speechless again, lost in those deep blue pools.
“And one more thing. You won’t tell anyone about any of this, right? About what you saw today? You won’t say a word, especially not to Snow. Or Preston. Or even Chernobyl.”
“That goes without saying, Rodney. What you’re doing is vigilante justice. It’s making something right in a world that’s so often wrong. I understand that. Robin Hood had to make exceptions in order to help the poor.”
“Yeah, that’s me. I’m Robin Hood.” He picked up his fork again and popped a fresh meatball into his mouth. “Molly, I could kiss you. I really could.”
“That would be wonderful. Shall we wait until after you swallow?”
He laughed then and quickly gobbled the rest of his pasta. I didn’t even have to ask: I knew he was laughing with me, not at me.
I was hoping we could linger longer and order dessert, but as soon as his plate was finished, he promptly asked the waitress for the bill.
When we were leaving the restaurant, he held the door open for me, a perfect gentleman. Once we were outside, he said, “So we have a deal, right? One friend helping another?”
“Yes. At the beginning of my shift, I’ll tell Juan Manuel what room he can stay in that night. I’ll give him a keycard and the room number. And
I’ll pop in early every morning to clean the room he and his friends were in the night before. Cheryl’s tardiness is legendary, so she won’t even notice.”
“That’s perfect, Molly. You really are a special girl.”
I knew from
Gone with the Wind
that this was the moment. I leaned forward so he could kiss me. I think he was aiming for my cheek, but I moved in such a way as to suggest I was not opposed to a kiss on the mouth. Unfortunately, the connection was a little misaligned, though my nose was not entirely disappointed by the unexpected affection.
In that moment, when Rodney kissed me, it didn’t matter where his lips landed. In fact, nothing except the kiss mattered to me at all, not the splotch of red sauce on his collar, not the way he reached for his phone right after, not even the piece of limp basil stuck between his teeth.
It’s almost the end of my shift. Playing over our first date in my mind has made the day go by quickly and has amplified my anticipation for our date tonight. It has also helped me avoid memories of yesterday. For the most part, I’ve been successful at keeping the flashbacks at bay. There was just the one instance when I remembered Mr. Black, dead in his bed, and for some reason, in my mind, suddenly, it was Rodney’s face on Mr. Black’s body, as though they were twinned, inextricably linked.
What utter rubbish. How could I imagine them connected like that, when they exist on polar opposites of so many spectrums—old versus young, dead versus alive, evil versus good? I shook my head back and forth to erase the nasty image. And just like with an Etch-a-Sketch, a good shake was all it took to wipe my mind clean.
The other intrusive thoughts I’ve had today are of Giselle. I know she’s still staying in the hotel, but I don’t know where, which room on the second floor. I do wonder how she’s doing, what with her husband dead. Is she happy about this turn of events? Or is she sad? Is she relieved to be free from him or concerned about her future? What does she stand to inherit, if anything at all? If the newspapers
are right, she’s the heir apparent to the family fortune, but Mr. Black’s first wife and kids will no doubt have something to say about that. And if I’ve learned anything about the way money works, it’s that it magnetizes toward those born with it, leaving those who need it most without.
It weighs on me—what will become of Giselle.
This is the problem with friendships. Sometimes you know things you shouldn’t know; sometimes you carry other people’s secrets for them. And sometimes, that burden takes its toll.
, only half an hour before I’m due to meet Rodney at the Social for our date. Our second date—progress!
I scoot down the hall with my trolley to let Sunshine know I’m done cleaning all my rooms, including the one Juan Manuel stayed in last night.
“You’re a quick one, you are, Miss Molly!” Sunshine says. “I’ve got more rooms to finish, myself.”
I say goodbye for the day, then pass by the police officer on my way to the elevator, but he barely registers my presence. I take the elevator to the basement. I peel off my maid uniform and change into my regular clothes, some jeans and a floral blouse—not quite what I would have chosen for a date with Rodney, but I’ve no more money to spend on excesses such as kitten heels and polka dots. Besides, if Rodney’s truly a good egg, he’ll judge by the yolk, not by the shell.
At five to five, I’m downstairs at the front of the Social, waiting by the Please Be Seated sign, looking around for Rodney. He sees me, comes from the back of the restaurant right to my side.
“Just in time, I see.”
“I pride myself on punctuality,” I reply.
“Let’s go to a booth at the back.”
“Privacy. Yes, that seems appropriate.”
We walk through the restaurant to the most secluded—and romantic—booth at the back.
“It’s very quiet here now,” I say, taking in the empty chairs, the two
waitresses by their service station talking to each other because there’s hardly a customer in sight.
“Yeah. Wasn’t like this earlier. Lots of cops. And reporters.” He looks around the room, then at me. His bruised eye looks a bit better than it did this morning, but it’s still swollen.
“Listen, I’m really sorry about what happened to you yesterday, finding Mr. Black and all that. Plus, being taken to the cop shop. That must have been intense.”
“It was a disruptive day. Today is going much better. Especially now,” I add.
“So tell me, when you were with the cops, I hope nothing about Juan Manuel came up.”
This is a perplexing line of inquiry. “No,” I say. “That has nothing to do with Mr. Black.”
“Right. Of course it doesn’t. But you know. Cops can be nosy. I just want to make sure he’s safe.” He runs the fingers of one hand through his thick, wavy hair. “Can you tell me what happened, what you saw in that suite yesterday?” he asks. “I mean, I’m sure you’re feeling really scared, and maybe it would help to say it all out loud to, you know, a friend.”
He reaches his hand out to touch mine. It’s amazing, the human hand, how much warmth it conveys. I’ve missed physical contact, what without Gran in my life. She used to do exactly this, put her hand over mine to draw me out and get me to talk. Her hand let me know that no matter what, everything would be okay.
“Thank you,” I say to Rodney. It surprises me; it comes out of nowhere—the urge to cry. I fight it as I tell him about yesterday. “It all seemed like a normal day until I went to finish cleaning the Blacks’ room. I stepped inside and saw that the sitting room was untidy. I was only supposed to clean the bathroom, but then I went into the bedroom to see if that was a mess as well, and there he was, laid out on the bed. I thought he was napping, but…it turns out he was dead. Very dead.”
At this, Rodney takes his other hand so that he’s cradling mine in
both of his. “Oh, Molly,” he says. “That’s just awful. And…did you see anything in the room? Anything out of place or suspicious?”
I tell him about the safe being open, how the money was gone, along with the deed I’d seen in Mr. Black’s breast pocket earlier in the day.
“And that’s it? Nothing else out of the ordinary?”
“Actually, yes,” I say. I tell him about Giselle’s pills spilled on the floor.
“What pills?” he asks.
“Giselle has an unmarked bottle. It was that bottle, spilled by Mr. Black’s bedside.”
“Shit. You’re kidding me.”
“And where was Giselle?”
“I don’t know. She wasn’t in the suite. In the morning, she seemed quite upset. I know she was planning a trip, because I saw her flight itinerary sticking out of her purse.” I shift in my chair, bringing my chin to rest on my hand coquettishly, like a starlet in a classic film.
“Did you tell the cops that? About the itinerary? Or the pills?”
I’m growing increasingly impatient with this line of interrogation, yet I know that patience is a virtue, a virtue that, among others, I hope he attributes to me.
“I told them about the pills,” I say. “But I didn’t want to say much else. To be honest, and I hope you’ll keep this confidential, Giselle has been more than just a guest. She’s…well, she’s become a friend to me. And I’m quite worried about her. The nature of the police questions, they were…”
“What? They were what?”
“It was almost as though they were suspicious. Of her.”
“But did Black die of natural causes or not?”
“The police were fairly certain that was the case. But not completely.”
“Did they ask anything else? About Giselle? About me?”
I feel something slither in my stomach, as though a sleeping dragon were just roused from its torpor. “Rodney,” I say, with an edge in my voice that I have trouble hiding. “Why would they ask about you?”
“That was stupid,” he says. “No idea why I said that. Forget it.”
He pulls his hands away and I immediately wish he would put them back.
“I guess I’m just worried. For Giselle. For the hotel. For all of us, really.”
It occurs to me then that I’m missing something. Every year at Christmas, Gran and I would set up a card table in the living room and work on a puzzle together as we listened to Christmas carols on the radio. The harder the puzzle, the happier we were. And I’m feeling the same sensation I felt when Gran and I were challenged by a really hard puzzle. It’s as if I’m not quite putting the pieces together properly.
Then it occurs to me. “You said you don’t know Giselle well. Is that correct?”
He sighs. I know what this means. I’ve exasperated him, even though I didn’t mean to.
“Can’t a guy be concerned for someone who seems like a nice person?” he asks. There’s a sharp clip to his consonants that reminds me of Cheryl when she’s up to something unsanitary.
I must course-correct before I put Rodney off me entirely. “I’m sorry,” I say, smiling widely and leaning forward in my chair. “You have every right to be concerned. It’s just the way you are. You care about others.”
“Exactly.” He reaches into his back pocket and takes out his phone. “Molly, take my number,” he says.
A frisson of excitement flitters through me, removing any and all slithering doubt. “You want me to have your phone number?” I’ve done it. I’ve mended fences. Our date is back on track.
“If anything happens—like the police bother you again or ask too many questions—you just let me know. I’ll be there for you.”
I take out my phone and we exchange numbers. When I write my name in his phone, I feel inclined to add an identifier. “Molly, Maid and Friend,” I type. I even add a heart emoji at the end as a declaration of amorous intent.
My hands feel jittery as I pass back his phone. I’m hoping he’ll look at my entry and see the heart, but he doesn’t.
Mr. Snow enters the restaurant then. I see him by the bar, grabbing
some paperwork before leaving. Rodney is slouching in the seat opposite me. He should not be shy about remaining in the workplace after the end of his shift—Mr. Snow says that’s a sign of an A++ employee.
“Listen, I’ve gotta go,” Rodney says. “You’ll call if anything comes up?”
“I will,” I say. “I most definitely will make phone contact.”
He gets up from the booth and I follow him out the lobby and through the front doors. Mr. Preston is just outside the entrance.
I wave and he tips his hat.
“Hey, any cabs around here?” Rodney asks.
“Of course,” Mr. Preston says. He walks to the street, blows his whistle, and waves down a taxi. When it pulls over, Mr. Preston opens the back door. “In you go, Molly,” he says.
“No, no,” Rodney replies. “The cab’s for me. You’re going…somewhere else, right, Molly?”
“I’m going east,” I say.
“Right. I’m west. Have a good night!”
Rodney gets in and Mr. Preston closes the door. As the taxi pulls away, Rodney waves at me through the window.
“I’ll call you!” I yell after him.
Mr. Preston stands beside me. “Molly,” he says. “Be careful with that one.”
“With Rodney? Why?” I ask.
“Because that, dear girl, is a frog. And not all frogs turn out to be princes.”