Jose Nateras © 2019
All Rights Reserved
I pulled out my phone and checked the time. I needed to be at work at six thirty, and unless the train started moving within the next five seconds, I would be late. A commute that usually took thirty minutes, door to door, was stretching closer and closer to taking forty minutes. Still, the train sat there, idle in its dark underground tunnel. There’s nothing worse than being late and getting stuck on a delayed train car at six fifteen in the morning. Fuck.
I rocked back and forth impatiently, a loose rivet in my seat clicking arrhythmically in its socket. Most of the Chicago Transit Authority’s train cars were in some state of disrepair. This car in particular had maps of the train lines missing overhead, cracked lighting fixtures, fractured chrome, and unsecured hardware. The homeless man stretched out asleep across the seats at the other end of the car didn’t seem to care. Neither did the middle-aged nurse sitting kitty-corner from me, listening to music on her phone through bright-pink earbuds.
I took a deep breath to stop my agitated rocking. The thick smell of synthetic flowers wafted along the length of the train car. An otherwise pleasant smell, in the enclosed space of the train car the scent was overwhelming, almost sickening. It had to be coming from the nurse. How’d I not notice the strength of her perfume sooner?
It occurred to me, if I puked on the ‘L’ right then and there, I’d have no excuse but to call in sick. It wouldn’t be the first time someone threw up on the Blue Line. I wouldn’t even have to actually vomit. I could just call in, hop off the train at the next stop, and grab the next one headed back toward my apartment. Tempting, but I could practically hear the voice of my manager Leslie. “Really, Gabe? What the fuck? Aren’t you just coming back from an extended leave of absence, Mr. Espinosa?”
With the sound of metal grinding on metal, the train started to move. I closed my eyes, allowing the momentum to build and hurdle me toward the misery of employment in the service industry.
Maybe misery was an exaggeration. As the train came to an abrupt stop at the Monroe station, I tried to remind myself there were worse fields to work in. Six blocks stretched between the train platform and the Sentinel Club Hotel. More specifically, six blocks stretched between me and the hotel’s restaurant, the Rosebriar Room, where I worked as a host. Walking so far would typically take around nine minutes, and at 6:25 a.m., I only had five minutes to do so. Officially late, I somehow found the energy to hustle up the stairs from the underground train platform and race out into the November chill.
I found myself caught behind a herd of Chicago commuters: business-bros and cubicle drones trotting to their respective jobs scattered across the Loop. Dodging between the office workers drowsily heading to work, I sprinted through the concrete canyon of downtown skyscrapers.
It was still dark. Only after I made it to Michigan Avenue, across from the green expanse of Millennium Park, could I see the first streaks of orange in the dark-gray sky. I pulled out my phone again. 6:31 a.m. “Shit.”
Speeding through the front doors of the hotel, I hurried to the service elevator. With no time to stop at the staff locker room down in the basement, I headed straight up to the thirteenth floor.
People often say hotels are naturally creepy places. I hadn’t really thought about it one way or another until I started working in one. It was true. The Sentinel Club Chicago was creepy, and being one of the oldest buildings in the city only made it all the more eerie. Before becoming a boutique hotel, the SCC was a historied private men’s club, and the Rosebriar Room, now the hotel’s wood-paneled fine-dining restaurant, once served as the private dining room for the club’s most elite members.
I’d been working there for a year and a half or so, and things I hadn’t noticed at first had started to weigh on my mind. More and more I found myself aware of the creepiness of the place. A laugh echoing in quiet, empty rooms. A flicker of movement out of the corner of an eye. A shadow on a wall with no one there to cast it. The feeling of being watched.
The prospect of spending my morning in such a place sounded pretty miserable. Perhaps I hadn’t been so far off in describing my job as a “misery” after all.
With a ding, the elevator doors parted, and I stepped into the restaurant’s vestibule. Spherical lighting fixtures hung from the ceiling, velvet-wallpaper lined the walls, and a couple of plush leather armchairs formed a small waiting area just outside a set of frosted glass double doors. The burgundy, paisley pattern embossed on the wallpaper caught the light with a silky sheen, making the walls look wet.
Leslie loved to open the doors as soon as she arrived, regardless of whether or not breakfast service had actually begun. Since the doors were closed, I could safely assume she hadn’t gotten there yet: a comforting thought. Dealing with my manager ranked among my least favorite things. Right up there with escorting clueless patrons to the bathroom and maintaining a cordial smile while being berated by an unhappy privileged guest dissatisfied with the table they’d reserved for themselves. I pushed through the doors and made my way into the restaurant.
Something about the place’s overlapping layers of history made me uneasy. Not just in the Rosebriar Room, but throughout the hotel. As I walked through the empty restaurant toward the point-of-sale to clock in, I couldn’t help but imagine the place as it had been years ago when it still served as the club’s private dining room. I could easily picture empty chairs and tables occupied by rich white men in waistcoats and top hats, eating caviar and drinking martinis thirteen floors above the rushing bodies and vehicles of Michigan Avenue.
A prime location. Built as a part of the development surrounding the World’s Fair in 1893, the building was a testament to Chicago architecture. Where else should it be, but right on Michigan Avenue? And where else would a group of Chicago’s most affluent and influential gentlemen want to have their clubhouse?
Thinking about the sort of things elite, moneyed people do in private is a dangerous road to go down. The hospitality group’s efforts to recreate and modernize the original club’s decor only made picturing the sordid details of the past all too easy. I didn’t like to imagine the nefarious deeds rich white men indulged in while tucked away in the shadowy, mahogany-walled corners of the Sentinel Club’s numerous private lounges and parlors. I’d seen Eyes Wide Shut. Though no longer a private club, the hotel still attracted a predominantly privileged, demanding clientele. Dealing with their bullshit was hard enough without images of sinister, masked orgies running around in my head.
After the club ceased operating in 2009, the hotel group responsible for the restoration and updating of the building did its damnedest to maintain as much of the original aesthetic as they could. They spun the club’s old-school style into achingly modern, hipster-chic; an aesthetic torn half from an Urban Outfitters catalogue and half from a history book. In doing so, the hotel had transformed into some sort of hybrid animal. A taxidermy calf juxtaposed with some framed, ironic, postmodern screen print. A place where old and new met. Public and private. All dark wood and shining brass. Full of potential and full of the past. In such a place, one could easily forget where you were. When you were. From the solitude of the Rosebriar tucked away on the thirteenth floor, beyond the restored ballrooms and reconstructed athletic facilities, it was too easy to imagine the streets below being lit by gaslight with H.H. Holmes prowling the darkened alleys.
I clocked in at six forty on the dot. Ten minutes late. A healthy display of tardiness. But as long as Leslie wasn’t there yet, it didn’t matter all too much. I stowed my jacket and scarf away in the guest coat closet, then made sure to adjust the sleeves of my suit coat. Upon getting hired, I was required to purchase the standard H&M suit the entire front-of-house staff had to wear. Had I been excited to spend a third of my first paycheck on the outfit? No. However, cheap, yet vaguely stylish, our uniforms helped us blend into the fanciness of the establishment without drawing too much attention. Besides, a black suit was useful for all sorts of occasions: weddings, baptisms. Funerals.
I rummaged through the host stand’s drawer. Digging past the notepads and boxes of business cards with the restaurant’s hours of operation, I finally found the lint roller I so desperately needed and proceeded to peel the particles off my suit. “Fucking lint,” I grumbled. In the stillness of the restaurant, even a mumble seemed to echo. “Shit.” The tape like surface of the roller snagged on the hooked end of my bracelet.
In an effort to keep things “hip,” we were free to add slight testaments to our individual personalities. Only if they weren’t considered distracting and had been approved by management, of course. Cufflinks, modest jewelry, tie-bars, and the like. I looked down at my wrist where a simple leather cord was fastened. The clasp, a small steel charm in the shape of an anchor, was threaded through a loop, holding it in place.
I had worn this bracelet every day since Kenny gave it to me as an anniversary present even though we’d technically been together over a year at the time. Since then, it had practically become a part of my arm. This morning, I couldn’t avoid the thought of it being two years exactly since I first received it. I tucked the bracelet into my sleeve, ensuring it didn’t snag on the cotton bandage wrapped around my wrist, and tugged down my shirt sleeve. After I shoved the lint roller back in the drawer, I made my way toward the terrace windows.
Before breakfast service began, I was there alone. The dining room seemed far removed from the distant bustle of the limited, morning back-of-house staff who were confined to the isolation of the kitchen. Attempting to shake off my foul mood, I focused my attention on the sun continuing to climb over the lip of Lake Michigan’s eastern horizon. Warm light spilled across Millennium Park. The light split into rays and danced through the stained Tiffany glass of the dining room’s east-facing windows. The designer glass dated back to the building’s construction and separated the main dining room from the terrace seating. The terrace floated there, looking down from the thirteenth floor over Michigan Avenue and the lake beyond.
After managing to pry my eyes from the view, I looked over the guest book at the day’s reservations to prepare the VIP list for Chef and make the seating plan for the morning rush. I spread out the day’s newspapers—The Chicago Tribune, The Sun-Times, The Wall Street Journal—along the bar and went on to straighten place settings.
If the settings weren’t just right, Leslie would give me hell. So, I carefully adjusted each silver knife to be completely parallel with the fork beside it. Every crystal water glass had to be placed at a precise angle in relation to the rectangular fold of the linen napkin. The monogrammed plate had to be perfectly centered in the place setting. Considering how, without fail, every guest promptly dismembered the carefully arranged place settings the second they sat down, I hated the task.
With a yawn, I tried to gear up for yet another long day. Then I noticed the chill. A draft of cold air in the otherwise climate-controlled room. My muscles tensed, and a faint tickle slithered along the back of my neck and arms as my body readied itself to run. But run from what? There was nothing there. Still, I could sense something. Even though I knew the restaurant was empty, it didn’t feel like it. It never felt empty.
I took a breath and willed myself to turn back toward the host stand. Just beyond my usual workstation, a heavy, ornate brass vase stood on a pedestal. To distract myself, I moved to freshen the water of the flowers it held. The vase had apparently been a fixture in the club since its founding back at the turn of the century. The thick metal of it was engraved to portray a satyr—in all its Greco-Roman, phallically exuberant glory—pouring wine from a decanter.
I hated the ugly thing. I hated the way the satyr’s twisted goat horns were forged into the vase’s handles. I hated the sneer on his face and the stupid joke of his giant, menacing boner. The whole thing was absurd and grotesque.
With a sigh, I pulled it down from its perch and lugged the monstrosity into the kitchen. I could change out the water in the sink at the barista station, tucked away in a dimly lit corner at the far end of the otherwise bright kitchen. There, I pulled out the nest of sunflowers and orange roses, pouring the putrid water out from the vase. The scent of rotting flowers, the reek of a funeral parlor, hit me full in the face. I turned on the faucet and used fresh water to rinse the rank fluid from the vase. I filled the brass monstrosity with cool water and tucked the flowers back into their place.
Beyond the kitchen door, I could feel the expanse of the restaurant and, for just a second, could almost hear the subtle murmur of polite dinner conversation. As calmly as my nerves would allow, I turned off the water. Peeking through the door’s porthole, I tentatively looked out into the silent emptiness of the dining room.
Could a place like SCC ever really be empty? At all hours of the day and night, there are the hotel staff and guests: sleeping, awake. Somebody is always somewhere, doing something. But even if all the rooms and halls in the entire building were unoccupied and every employee called in sick, a place as old as this would always be loaded with a residue. Some kind of echo lingers. The silence is heavier. The shadows are deeper. When it’s crowded and bustling and there’s a ton of busy work to do, it might go unnoticed. Things are harder to ignore when you’re alone.
My mind flitted back to waking up that morning and the darkness of my empty room without Kenny lying there beside me. Alone in the restaurant, I could still feel the leaden weight of my limbs as I lay in my empty bed; my mind still swimming up from the deep, shadowy waters of sleep while I tried to shake off the lingering dread of unremembered nightmares.
Even though I stood in the isolated barista station, I had the sensation of lying at home; the familiar masses of my bedroom furniture solidifying in the shadows around me. The impossible challenge of dragging myself to the edge of the bed and finding the will to get up. In the darkness, I had fumbled my phone awake, and the brightness of the screen was almost painful. Fuck mornings. Fuck waking up. Fuck my empty bed. Kenny hadn’t been there since we’d broken up a month ago, but his absence was a presence in itself. Fuck that. A thought floated into my mind, simple, and inflectionless. I wish I were dead.