You spent a week at home, waiting for Oatie to finish up with school, and then you flew out together. It was Oatie’s first time spending the summer away from home. You talked her into it.
“Come on,” you said. “It’s just for the summer. You can have my old job at the hotel.”
You had spent the summer out there two years before, and the manager of the hotel was happy to hire your sister and give you both a place to live, in Apartment B.
“Cleaning rooms?”Oatie said. “Vacuuming the hallways?”
“Yeah!” you said. You stuck an exclamation mark into your voice. “It’s fun!”
Out you went, the both of you, on the plane instead of the Greyhound you originally planned to take. That was because you had broken your leg the last week of college, falling off your bike at the end of a long ride. All those hills, all those miles, and you chose to fall off while going three miles an hour across the grass to the dorm.
You knew it was broken because of the snap, but because you didn’t, and still don’t, swell, you had to convince the doctor to x-ray it.
The broken leg was a hindrance —hard to waitress with a broken leg, even one in a walking cast, and waitressing was what you wanted to do. Tips, which you loved. Hustle and bustle, which you loved. Free meals in the kitchen on break, always a plus.
Oh well. Goodbye waitressing. Broken leg or not, you were going to Colorado for the summer, and Oatie was coming too. The two of you bought one-way tickets to Denver. From the airport you took the hound to the ski town up in the mountains, and up the wide, carpeted spiral ramp to Apartment B.
Why is this summer so much on your mind these days? You don’t really know. Three short months, was all it was. You and Oatie, living on your own together the way neither of you ever had. It was always she and Robert John –your other sister, the one with the male nickname– who had shared a room. She and Robert John who had their own language, their own shared routines.
But here you were, the two of you. Oatie cleaned rooms at the hotel, vacuumed the hallways, polished the windows and wrought iron railing of the wide circular ramp that led from the first to the third floor of the three-story hotel.
You tromped around the streets of the town in your walking cast, looking for work. You found a job at another hotel, at the front desk. You liked the manager there, and his girlfriend; he was bold and funny, she was kind, with golden curls and an air of sadness that never went away.
“Winter is wonderful, but summer is why we live here.”
That was the quote on the poster that was everywhere in that town, that summer. You had never been to the town in winter. You didn’t ski, but you were a hiker, and the hikes there were endless and every one was beautiful.
Not that you could hike, with the broken leg. You counted on it healing fast, so that you could squeeze in a few weeks of hiking at the end of the summer. Did you? You remember the cast coming off, and the shock of how skinny and hairy and creepy-looking a leg can get in just six weeks.
Enough with the broken leg. The leg is not what you remember, when you think of that summer.
You remember Oatie, dragging herself into Apartment B at the end of a long day of cleaning. You remember how she used to fling herself onto the couch and moan about how the basement had flooded again, how she had to use the wet-vac again, how she just wanted a beer.
“Again! I was down there for HOURS with the wet vac! HOURS!”
You, meanwhile, had spent the day at the front desk of the hotel, doing little but taking reservations, checking people in, and typing story after story on the hotel typewriter. That’s all you wrote back then: short stories, all gone now.
You remember teaching Oatie how to sneak food from the daily deliveries to Dos Amigos, the Mexican bar and grill accessible from the second floor of the hotel. “Steal” would be a more accurate term, harshly accurate. Crates and crates of avocados and tomatoes and onions and lettuce –guacamole and nachos– stacked in the basement.
Just one or two would be okay, right? No, but you took them anyway.
Halfway through the summer Oatie got a crazed gleam in her eye and started coming back to Apartment B with three, four, five of each. That was Oatie. Never one for half-measures.
“I’m tired of being poor!” she wailed.
How could you blame her? Neither of you had any money, and Oatie liked to spend it, not conserve it. You were stern, though.
Homemade English muffins. Homemade split pea soup. Endless bowls of oatmeal. Stir fry. A bottle of cheap vodka to drink before you went out, so as not to ring up a big bar tab.
These are some of the things you and Oatie snicker about on the phone when you remember that summer. When you want to make her laugh, all you have to do is leave her a voicemail or post a message on her page:
“English muffins! Split pea soup! Oatmeal!”
And she will call you back and off you go, back into the past, into that long-ago summer.
Remember the mountain man?, she will say, and you will conjure the mountain man. He came walking into town with a dirty backpack and hiking boots that had seen hundreds of miles of mountains. He was hiking across the country in memory of his dead friend. The mountain man had sandy hair and blue eyes and he, too, emanated sadness.
You and Oatie offered the mountain man shelter. Sure, he could stay with you for a few days. The mountain man washed his clothes and took a shower and came out to the disco with you and Oatie and your other summer friends. He made dinner for you and Oatie and your friend Erin: lasagna.
He didn’t boil the noodles first. This was the first time you had ever considered that it might be possible to make lasagna without first boiling the noodles. You have made it this way ever since. Just add more liquid.
You remember dancing with the mountain man to a slow song, and how you could feel his loneliness, and how long it had been since he touched a girl. You could sense how much he was holding inside during those few days he spent with the two of you before he put the pack back on and headed out of town.
More of your friends came through that summer, and you and Oatie housed and fed them all. You especially remember Tom and Steve, and how they came running up the wide circular ramp, laughing. How, the day they left, they drove to the grocery store and came back with bags of groceries, groceries that were more than oatmeal and flour, and stocked your cupboards. You were sad to see them go.
“You have such great friends!” Oatie would say.
It was true. It still is.
You remember how every afternoon, around one o’clock, clouds would abruptly mass over the town. Awnings would be pulled out. The scrape scrape of chairs being quickly dragged inside. Then would come a brief, pounding rain, and just as abruptly, the skies would clear. The sun would shine down on the shining pavement.
From the balcony of Apartment B that smell, the smell of wet pavement, would drift upward. The air would feel rinsed and cool.
You remember hitching to the Stop ‘n Shop down the highway, to save money at a big store instead of the cute little pricey store in town. You and Oatie standing by the highway, thumbs in the air. Hitching back with the heavy paper bags. Lugging flour and oatmeal and peas, rice and vegetables and oil, back to Apartment B.
If you look at that photo up there you can see the big bag of flour, the oatmeal, the bottles of vegetable oil.
You remember the other residents of the hotel, the ones who, like you and Oatie, were working in town for the summer and renting rooms. Jerry leaps into your mind. Jerry who seemed to spend most of his time in the room he shared with two others, the three of them crammed into an ordinary-sized hotel room to save money.
Jerry ironed a lot. Jerry wore his bathrobe much of the time. Jerry talked incessantly of Europe, and to be told that your outfit looked European was a high compliment from Jerry. Jerry was funny, so funny. His constant gossip was always unkind but never truly unkind.
One of his roommates was silent Paul, tall blonde silent Paul who left early every morning for work. His other roommate was. . . who was he? That is the kind of question that Oatie can answer.
Now, so many years later, you look back and think of Jerry and wonder if he was caught by the disease that caught so many back then. It was that fall, when you left Colorado and moved back east, that the mutterings began, and spread, and then the disease itself spread, and laid waste to thousands.
You remember feeling lonely. You remember not knowing what waited for you, once you left the town and headed back east. One of your closest friends was getting married in early September and you were in the wedding; that was the end date to your summer. But after that? You remember not knowing what in the world would happen to you.
You wanted to live in Vermont, but where and how? You longed for a boy who lived there, but you knew he didn’t feel the same way. Your best friend was moving to Boston. Your other friends all seemed to have plans. You pretended you had a plan. But you didn’t.
Oatie was going back to school. She was safe. You did not feel safe.
All you knew was that you wanted to be a writer. You sat at that front desk at the hotel typing away, story after mediocre story, and was that how a person got to be a writer?
You had no idea.