Fiction / November 2011 (Issue 15)


Improvisation

by John David Harding

The intervals of silence are gorgeous. The ground floor of the hotel is my favorite and least favorite place to stand. My favorite because there is a fountain in which large koi swim in circles. My least favorite because the guests inevitably arrive, asking for help with their luggage, wondering about the new hibachi restaurant that's just opened down the road. I don't tell them that if I lift another expensive suitcase from the trunk of a luxury car, I'll kill myself. And I don't tell them that even if I had the money to spend at the new hibachi restaurant, I wouldn't waste it on a meal that I could easily replicate at home. And the assumption that I would know anything about the hibachi restaurant smacks of racism—just because I'm Asian doesn't mean that I've frequented every Asian restaurant in Orlando.

The koi are especially hungry today. Jessica—the girl from the vet school who cares for them—was sick yesterday with the stomach flu. The fish aren't fed in her absence. Probably because my manager is incompetent. If yesterday hadn't been my day off, I would've fed them, because it is the responsible thing to do. Nobody cares for anyone but himself in this place.

My manager is a white man named Steven whose little moustache is repulsive. He wears a white shirt that's stained yellow at the armpits. He smells like mushrooms. Steven's upset because he did not finish medical school. He could have been a first-rate doctor, so he says. But he can't even remember to feed the koi, which are delicate creatures in need of constant care. I wouldn't trust Steven with my life.

Jessica returns the next afternoon to feed the fish, and the fish are so hungry that they flop and thrash out of the water when she sprinkles a handful of flakes onto the surface. I watch her in silence until she turns around and says, "Hello." I say, "Hello." She dips a plastic container into the fountain to check the levels of the water. I ask, "Are you feeling better?" Jessica says that she is feeling much better, thank you.

This is the most we've ever conversed. I assume that Jessica knows that I have a crush on her; how could she not? It's embarrassing to admit, but another reason why I prefer standing by the koi fountain is the chance of seeing Jessica. She usually arrives around three o'clock, an hour before the evening shift begins, so I sometimes come in early to see her. I don't typically prefer white women, but Jessica's almond hair and beautiful amber eyes have temporarily skewed my judgment.

This afternoon, standing by the fountain, watching, I almost work up the courage to ask her out to dinner (but to where? the hibachi restaurant? hypocrite) when Steven wobbles out of his office, sweating profusely. "Hiro," he says. "There's a problem with the toilet in room 337. Take care of it."

The immediate thought: "Do I look like a plumber?" My answer: "Right away, sir."

I ride the elevator to the third floor. Sitting on the bed in 337 is a woman whose skin looks like cracked leather. She tells me that the toilet's overflowing. There's shitty water all over the floor. To divert her attention, I ask her why she's visiting Orlando.

"Never mind why," she says. "There's work to be done."

The toilet is overflowing (and, remember, I'm not a plumber) because the little chain attached to the stick and the big floating ball has gotten tangled, causing "shitty water" to splash out of the bowl. I untangle the chain and the stick and the ball, and the water levels off in the tank. I say, "The toilet is fixed." The woman says, "Great. Now whose job is it to clean up the shitty water?" I say, "That'd be me." There's an expensive bottle of perfume on the counter. I accidentally put it into my pocket. "I'll be right back," I say.

When I return with the mop and bucket, the woman has changed into her bathing suit. She's middle-aged, with large breasts, and the leathery skin that looks like it's been inflated and then deflated. Her hair is the worst kind of bottle blonde. She says, "I'm going to the beach for a swim. Please make sure that the door closes when you leave. And try to do something about the smell. Otherwise, I'll need to change rooms."

I mop the floor, spray down the bathroom with air freshener and sit on the bed, wiping sweat from my forehead. I'm feeling guilty about stealing the perfume. It's some kind of Chanel. It smells like stinking, rotting flowers. I'd give it to Jessica as a present if the bottle were completely full. But the woman has almost used half of the perfume. Jessica is no dummy—she would wonder what happened to the other half of the bottle.

I lie back on the bed and sniff the perfume, daydreaming about Jessica. How it would feel to see her walk into the room, remove her cotton shorts, sandals and white tank top. So that she's only wearing the necklace with the blue shell dangling between her breasts. She pulls her hair into a ponytail, and the only thing more beautiful than sunlight on the angle of her jawbone is the pearl earring suspended from the perfectly round lobe of her ear. And there will be an expensive bottle of wine, stolen from the hotel restaurant. And a plate of oysters that she will suck from the shell with a grin. Her indelible little laugh. Almond hair spread across the pillow, waiting to be touched. Then our lips will meet, lightly, what is the most innocent kiss in the world.

Suddenly, the woman returns from her swim, interrupting my daydream; she's demanding to speak with the manager. She wants another room! There's a shitty smell in the air, and there's an Asian bellboy lying on her bed, sniffing her perfume!

***

Steven transfers the woman to a new room. She's upgraded to a suite. Steven promises complimentary room service if she promises to keep quiet about "the incident." (Steven later refers to it as "Hiro's incident.") Steven is obsessed with online reviews of the hotel. A poor online review could cost the hotel thousands. "I won't say a word," the woman says, "as long as that little Asian pervert doesn't come near me." Steven promptly forbids me to step foot on the woman's floor until she has checked out.

When the time comes, the woman's exit is grand, punctuated by Steven's apologies and a reminder of their agreement. "I give you my word," she says, sliding large ovular sunglasses up the bridge of her nose. I offer to help her with her luggage. The woman swoons.

Steven tells me to empty the trashcans by the pool: now! Maxwell is ordered to load the woman's luggage into the trunk of her SUV. She then speeds away, kicking up dust beneath the porte-cochère.

***

Jessica is late for work. I try to busy myself in the lobby, hoping to see her, but an elderly man summons me to room 423. He needs help working the remote control. The man's room smells like old skin. He's visiting Orlando to attend his daughter's wedding. There isn't any room for him at the fancy hotel where the rest of the wedding party is staying (his ex-wife miscalculated the number of rooms to reserve). So he's settled for our little hotel, and the experience has only proven that "you get what you pay for." Why, even the hot tub is second rate; the jets hardly produce bubbles, he says, and the water is lukewarm at best.

I apologize profusely for the inconvenience.

"And another thing," he says, "Someone should teach that bartender in the restaurant how to pour a drink. I ordered a scotch and soda, and it was like drinking plain soda water. Where was the scotch? And when I asked the waitress to fix it, the silly girl said that she'll have to charge me for two drinks. What kind of establishment is this?"

I apologize profusely for the inconvenience.

"That's OK," he says. "Hey…you wouldn't happen to know kung fu, do you?" The question takes me by surprise. Seeing that I'm already helping the white man with electronics (the remote control), it shouldn't have shocked me that, to him, I am a walking cliché. At least he doesn't ask me if I play the violin (which I do not; I play the cello). I tell him, "I'm afraid I don't know kung fu." He says, "That's a pity. Jackie Chan is one of my favorite actors. I could watch him all day long." I show the man how to press the power button, how to change the channel, how to adjust the volume. As I'm leaving, he hands me a dollar bill, "for my trouble."

***

In the lobby, an exotic parrot has escaped from its cage. The bird's owner—a large woman—is shrieking louder than the parrot. Meanwhile, the bird is flapping around the lobby, causing more commotion than usual for a Thursday afternoon. It bumps against the wall, spreads its wings and sends a framed painting crashing to the floor. The frame shatters, scattering glass around the koi fountain, and before Steven has a chance to take a breath, I've grabbed the dustpan to sweep up the pieces. The woman (dressed in pastels) finally coaxes the bird into its cage with, of all things, a cracker. Polly does want a cracker.

So I'm sweeping the glass when Jessica arrives. The fish begin thrashing beneath her hand. The yellow koi with brown spots (the fattest fish in the tank) fights his way to the top of the pile and gobbles up the majority of the flakes. I've named this fish Rush Limbaugh.

Jessica sighs and drops more flakes into the water. Rush Limbaugh gobbles up the rest of the flakes.

"How's your day?" I ask, sweeping broken glass.

"Today has been a whirlwind," Jessica says. "I worked at the emergency clinic, and you wouldn't believe what I saw today." Jessica doesn't finish the thought, so I take the bait and ask her to tell me more. "There was a dog missing its back legs," she says, sitting on the edge of the fountain, facing me. "It was hit by a truck that left it for dead, and the poor dear wasn't wearing any tags. Luckily a stranger brought him to the clinic."

Would the dog survive? She isn't sure.

"We sutured the wounds and sedated him. He's lost a lot of blood. If he survives, he'll need an owner that understands how to care for a dog with special needs." She covers her face with her hands. "I just don't know if I'm cut out for this," she says.

I sit down next to Jessica, propping up the dustpan. "I know the feeling," I say, "but it could be worse. You could be working at this hotel for the rest of your life."

Jessica laughs, and says, "Yeah, that would suck." She catches my drift a little too late. "I'm sorry," she says. "That was a stupid thing to say. But really, you don't have to work here forever. You could find a better job. Don't you have plans for college?"

I don't have plans for college because I did not finish high school, and I don't have any motivation. My parents permanently distorted my sense of responsibility. I could never make them happy, so I stopped trying. Jessica laughs uncomfortably. "I don't know, Hiro," she says. "I envy you sometimes. You come to work, knowing what to expect. I go to work at the clinic, and it's difficult to get out of my car because I don't know what's waiting for me. I'm not sure if I can see another dog missing its back legs. Or another dog beaten within inches of its life. It takes its toll, you know?" I say that I know. It must be hard.

Then the woman with the exotic parrot wanders over, carrying the cage, and she wants to know why she isn't being helped. Her bags are too heavy!

I apologize profusely for the inconvenience.

***

Maxwell was fired yesterday. You're asking yourself: what could be worse than lying on a patron's bed, sniffing her perfume (for which I wasn't fired)? What tops that?

It is a well-known fact among the hotel staff that Maxwell smokes a joint behind the pool house on his breaks. It doesn't bother anyone, and Steven (preoccupied with online poker) has been none the wiser.

Maxwell is found out because he invites the fourteen-year-old daughter of hotel guests to smoke with him. He claims that he didn't know that she was fourteen. He thought she was more like sixteen or seventeen. (He later tells me in an e-mail: "Her tits were big enough to convince me that she was at least sixteen.") Maxwell is fired. Steven apologizes endlessly to the girl's mother and father, who want to press charges. They change their mind when they discover that their hotel stay is "on the house" and that they've been upgraded to the master suite on the 15th floor.

I'm given the dubious job of playing "butler" to the Smith family of Gary, Indiana. Our hotel does not come equipped with butlers, but Steven wants to me to give the Smith family the "royal treatment."

So I'm standing in the Smith's room, wearing a white cloth on my arm, asking them if they need anything.

Mr. Smith has many questions about this "Maxwell character": "Where did they find that Maxwell guy?" he asks. "He looked straight out of the projects. I've never seen so many tattoos. Blame the manager for the staffs' mistakes. Someone should report that manager to the owners." I don't waste my breath telling him that Steven is the grandson of the owners; he's a lifer.

"Heaven knows that I am not a racist," continues Mr. Smith, "but there are two types of black people. There are the good ones. And then there are the ones that ruin it for the good ones."

I want to kick Mr. Smith in the balls. But he reminds me that he is not a racist, and to be sure, he has nothing against Asian people. "Sure, they are taking our jobs. And the Chinese government holds the future of the United States in the palm of its hand; all it will take is for the Chinese government to recall the loans made to the United States, and bam! America will go bankrupt."

I ask, "Morally bankrupt?" It is a little joke.

"Financially bankrupt, son. It would be the next Depression, only much, much worse."

I assure Mr. Smith that I am Japanese. Intrigued, he asks me if I've tried the new hibachi restaurant down the road.

I apologize profusely—I have not tried it.

He's taking the family there this evening. He'll let me know how it is. Maybe I could teach him how to say "Hello" in Japanese before he goes? He'd like to say "Hello" to the waitress and the chef. I teach him to say "Konnichiwa."

Let's try this phonetically: KO (ko) NEE (nee) CHEE (chee) WAH (wah).

I say, "Very good."

Mr. Smith gives me a five-dollar bill, "for my trouble."

***

That night, Jessica doesn't show up to feed the fish. She calls Steven and says that she is swamped at work. An injured dog in need of amputation arrived just as she was leaving.

The koi look hungry. I hold my fist over the water, and the fish instinctively surround the reflection of my hand. I wonder what Jessica feeds them. And why hasn't she taught someone else how to feed them? What if Jessica quits? Who will feed the fish?

***

The next day, Jessica is at work, and I ask her what she feeds the fish. She replies with a convoluted answer. I shake my head and say, "What if you were to teach me how to feed them? In case you can't make it to work."

She dips a plastic object into the water to test the levels. "That seems like a good idea, Hiro," she says, "but if I did that, wouldn't Steven want to fire me?"

Why would Steven fire her? She says, "If you can do my job, Steven can save money by having you feed the fish. He wouldn't need me anymore." I tell her that it was just an idea.

"Hiro, do you want to have a drink with me?" Jessica asks this while holding the plastic object to the light. A haggard looking woman that's just checked in needs help with her bags. I say that I will be with her "right away." I say to Jessica, "Yes. My shift is over at eleven."

Jessica frowns. "That's kind of late. Maybe we should try another night."

Panicking, I say, "No. I'll ask Steven if I can leave early tonight. What about ten o'clock at the Pink Flamingo?" Jessica will be at the Pink Flamingo at ten.

I carry the haggard looking woman's bags to her room. She gives me a coupon for a free Chik-fil-A sandwich. She is the regional vice president for Chik-fil-A. I thank her and promise to redeem the coupon. She says, "Enjoy the sandwich."

Of course Steven gives me hell about leaving work early. I promise to clean the public restroom on each floor. He asks, "And the restroom by the pool?" And the restroom by the pool. Steven agrees.

***

I clean the restrooms and leave work by nine forty-five. I'm sitting at the Pink Flamingo bar at exactly ten o'clock. I order a beer. It's ten thirty. I order a beer. It's ten forty-five. I order a beer. It's eleven o'clock. No Jessica.

I drive home drunk and check my e-mail. Jessica e-mailed me at nine fifty-three. She got my e-mail address from Maxwell. She's really sorry, but she forgot that she has a big exam in the morning. We'll have that drink as soon as possible.

I turn that phrase over in my mouth: as soon as possible. Sounds like a death sentence for a future date. As soon as possible could be tomorrow or it could be two years or it could be never.

I drink another beer from the stash in the fridge and become sufficiently drunk. I reply to Jessica's e-mail: "OK. Not a problem."

***

Jessica doesn't show up for work at the hotel the next day or the day after that or the day after that. The fish are hungry, and I suggest to Steven that I could feed them. Steven asks if I know what to do. I say that Jessica taught me—even though she didn't, but I don't tell him that. For the time being, I'll improvise.

 
Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2017
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.