Short Story Of the Day (flash fiction), Life at the Baker by Bill Chance

“He thinks money spent on a home is money wasted. He’s lived too much in hotels. Never the best hotels, of course. Second-rate hotels. He doesn’t understand a home. He doesn’t feel at home in it. And yet, he wants a home. He’s even proud of having this shabby place. He loves it here.”
― Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night

 

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#33 – One third of the way there!). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.

 


A handful of miles west of the DFW Metroplex is a smallish town of 15,000 called Mineral Wells, Texas. The town has a surprisingly interesting and colorful past. I especially like that one claim was that the well water could help “crazy” people. Modern analysis reportedly shows a significant amount of lithium in it.

One remnant from history is the Baker Hotel. It’s a huge fourteen story rambling luxurious ruin completely out of place in that sleepy Texas town. Closed for generations and tumbling into decay. There have been several attempts bring it back to glory. Let’s hope the latest one is successful.

I go to Mineral Wells every now and then to go camping at the State Park or ride my mountain bike. Whenever I do I go by the Baker, look it over, and think about what it once was and what it is now. If they do manage to renovate it (and I wonder about how likely this is – from the article: “make sense of a $65 million redo of a building that’s projected to be worth only $40 million once the renovation is complete”) we need to go some weekend and have a big party.

At any rate – the hotel inspired me to write this dystopian story.

 


Life at the Baker

The Generators woke Benny as they passed on their way to work through the corridor outside his room. Young, boisterous, and pumped up, they were always loud before they spent the night pedaling the generators in the Baker Hotel’s gym, providing what feeble electric light they could.

Benny crawled from bed and raised the one untaped corner of the thick aluminum reflective paper that covered his window, peering out to make sure the last sliver of the burning sun had dipped below the horizon. The night was going to be hot but the day was unbearable. It was still two days from his allotted bath – he dipped the corner of a towel in the stagnating basin of water and rubbed his face as best he could. There was a rustle as Benny’s TODO list slid under the door. Picking it up, he sighed as he saw the length of it. He lifted the heavy canvas bag of tools to his shoulder and shuffled out to go to work.

At the end of the long corridor, Benny pulled the string that rang the bell for the elevator. Soon after he heard the wheezing of the Operator as he worked the crank that raised the wire cage up to Benny’s floor.

“Evening, Operator,” Benny said. “Hot one today.”

“Hot one every day, Fixer,” the Operator replied in the standard greeting at the Baker.

At the bottom, Benny left, carrying his bag off into the maze of pipes that crisscrossed the subbasement.

Grumbling as he looked down the list, he thought about which task to tackle first.

“Room 713 has no water,” he said to himself, “and the toilet in 456 is stopped up… forget that one, haha!… Oh, and the kitchen needs more steam.”

Benny could get steam going to the kitchen without climbing from the subbasement, so he decided on that. He pulled a big wrench from the bag, then walked over to his locker and opened it up. The shelves were sagging from the weight of hundreds of manuals, stuffed in tight.

Soon after arriving at the Baker, Benny had found the manuals in a forgotten closet deep under what used to be the boiler room. He had been squatting there, hungry, and avoiding being found when he stumbled across the manuals, which he realized could help him repair almost everything the Baker.

That gave him a job and a legitimate place in the Baker’s society. He was the Fixer. The job was life. Without it he would be back in the Wilderness and nobody survived long there. He thumbed through the manuals until he found a diagram of the steam system.

In the dim flickering light coming from the Generators pedaling away high above he began to climb through the labyrinth of pipes until he found what he believed was the steam pipe that fed the kitchen. All the hot water and steam came from a wood-powered boiler set up outside on what used to be Baker’s tennis court. Benny knew the Scavengers were having trouble finding fuel because certain areas of the hotel were rapidly losing their wooden furniture.

Still, though, it was working at least a little, gauging from the wisps of vapor that left the rusting pipes at the loose joints. Benny used his wrench to twist the steam valves that fed the rest of the hotel, squeezing off their supply – just a little – and opening fully the one that fed the kitchen. That should help – and nobody else would notice, hopefully – the steam pressure had been failing for a long time and a little less wouldn’t raise a concern. Nobody needed heat anyway though a few other things did still run on steam.

He decided to walk up to the kitchen and see if Cook would give him anything for his work… plus he could check out what the Scavengers had brought in after their daylight expedition. He didn’t understand how they could stand being outside all day – but he knew their survival depended on it.

He found the Cook and asked about the steam.

“Hey! I think I fixed the steam, how is it?”

The Cook laconically turned a tap, and watched a small cloud of vapor sneak out. Benny thought that was wasteful, but he didn’t dare say anything. If the Cook didn’t like you, you went hungry.

“Well,” the Cook said after a long pause, “It looks like it’s a bit stronger now.”

“Good!” Benny said. “I fixed it didn’t I… Did the scavengers bring anything in?” He raised his voice in anticipation and excitement.

The Cook grumbled and started rummaging around in a bag he had stashed under the counter.

“I suppose you did, Fixer. I guess this is yours then,” the Cook said in a resigned tone. He rolled something cylindrical across the metal counter and Benny caught it as it fell off on his side. He raised it up to get a good look.

The label on the can was torn, only about half of it was left – but Benny was able to make out the large black letters “GHETT” and under that a bit of a photo of round pasty circles floating in faded sauce.

“Spaghetti O’s, Thanks, Cook! I remember these from when I was a little kid. My mom used to make ‘em up – she’d dump them in a bowl and heat them in the microwave. Beep! Beep! Hot food! Every day! Jeez, those were the days.”

The Cook stared at Benny with sad and bored eyes. Benny thought he had better get out of there before The Cook changed his mind, so with a wave of the precious can, he skipped out through the hinged double doors into the dining room.

When he saw that there were hungry folks huddled in small groups in the big room he quickly shoved the can into a pocket. No reason to make people jealous.

 

It Exists Absolutely More Than Anything Else

But witches don’t exist, and they don’t live in swamps, I say.

“Yeah, they do. They do exist. They just don’t exist the way you think they exist. They certainly exist. You may say well dragons don’t exist. It’s, like, yes they do — the category predator and the category dragon are the same category. It absolutely exists. It’s a superordinate category. It exists absolutely more than anything else. In fact, it really exists. What exists is not obvious. You say, ‘Well, there’s no such thing as witches.’ Yeah, I know what you mean, but that isn’t what you think when you go see a movie about them. You can’t help but fall into these categories. There’s no escape from them.”
—-Jordan Peterson

St. George and the Dragon
John Mills, Bronze, orig. Plaster
Windsor Court Hotel, New Orleans

Someone Stronger Than You

“She didn’t need to understand the meaning of life; it was enough to find someone who did, and then fall asleep in his arms and sleep as a child sleeps, knowing that someone stronger than you is protecting you from all evil and all danger”
― Paulo Coelho, Brida

Adolphus Hotel Dallas, Texas

Adolphus Hotel
Dallas, Texas

All The Rest Is Other

“Civilized Man says: I am Self, I am Master, all the rest is other–outside, below, underneath, subservient. I own, I use, I explore, I exploit, I control. What I do is what matters. What I want is what matter is for. I am that I am, and the rest is women & wilderness, to be used as I see fit.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin

The Trinity River bottoms are an odd place – a juxtaposition of wildest land – apparently untouched by man kept wild by the periodic surge of water. This is the flood plain, full of weeds – both human and otherwise.

But beyond this strip of muddy water and watery mud rise the crystal buildings of man, lawyer, and developer. It is a crazy jumble. From the wilderness you can’t help but look up at the architecture – a line of ziggurat superstructures that seem to exist in a fog of magic and mystery.

But from inside the buildings themselves – a hundred thousand souls wander in the artificial atmosphere unaware of the tracts of undeveloped earth right outside their sealed and curtained windows.

The Anatole Hotel, the Renaissance Dallas, and the new Parkland Hospital, from the Trinity river floodplain,  Dallas, Texas

The Anatole Hotel, the Renaissance Dallas, and the new Parkland Hospital, from the Trinity river floodplain,
Dallas, Texas

“The general public has long been divided into two parts; those who think that science can do anything and those who are afraid it will.”
― Thomas Pynchon, Mason and Dixon</blockquote>

St. Vincent’s Guest House

Finding a hotel in another city on the Internet is a funny thing… it’s not so much like looking for something blind as it is trying to make a decision, a choice, based on secondhand information where everyone is lying to you.

When Candy was researching a place to stay in New Orleans for our trip last week she kept coming across a place called St. Vincent’s Guest House. We’ve stayed a handful of places in the past, most notably the Prytania Park, and the Mandevilla B&B (both highly recommended BTW) but the St. Vincent was a lot (a lot!) cheaper.

I didn’t get too involved in the planning, and while we were flying to New Orleans I was really curious about what this place would be like. It was in a great location – right on Magazine Street in the Lower Garden District – close to downtown (and the quarter) and the St. Charles Streetcar.

But it was only going to cost us fifty dollars a night. What kind of Big-City hotel charges fifty dollars a night? In my mind I pictured an old run-down Motel 6, kicked out of the chain for excessive filthiness, occupied mostly by prostitutes, and a constant drug trade going on in the parking lot. Still, it’s only fifty bucks a night, we need to spend as little as possible, and all I need is a place to sleep – so I could deal with anything.

When we drove up and checked in, I quickly realized the truth could not be farther from this image. St. Vincent’s is a massive ancient brick edifice of classic New Orleans design with impossibly high ceilings, balconies with intricate cast iron railings, and one hell of a history to boot.

The imposing facade of the St. Vincent’s Guest House, facing Magazine Street in New Orleans. I had to move around a bunch of film crews and trucks to get this – they were shooting scenes for Treme. The St. Vincent must be a popular location – they did scenes for Red (the Bruce Willis film) there – now I’ll have to watch the damn thing.

The side of the St. Vincent Complex, from Race Street. We stayed on the second floor of the wing in the background, that’s the carriage house in the foreground.

From a faded clipping in the lobby:

History

St. Vincent’s was built in 1861 as an orphanage. It was founded by the Daughters of Charity order of nuns, however much of the funding was provided by Margaret Haughery. Margaret was an illiterate, Irish immigrant to New Orleans – she was a orphan herself and lost her husband and baby to yellow fever here in New Orleans. This was not unusual. Every summer up to 30.000 people here would die of mosquito born diseases such as yellow fever and malaria. Margaret’s tragic losses led her to dedicate her life to alleviating the suffering of children. She made a great fortune from her baking business and dedicated her wealth and compassion to philanthropic works. St. Vincent’s was among the greatest of these works. When Margaret died in 1882, the entire city closed down to mourn her loss and thousands followed her funeral parade, a fitting tribute to a truly great person. You will notice the clock on the roof of the carriage house at St. Vincent’s (across the courtyard) – this was willed to St. Vincent’s by Margaret as a final gift.

There is a lovely statue of Margaret between Prytania and Camp Streets, just near the 90 overpass. You may also like to visit St. Elizabeth’s orphanage, now owned by the Vampire novelist, Ann Rice. After the children turned seven, the girls were taken from ST. Vincent’s to St. Elizabeths. St. Elizabeths is in the Garden District on Napoleon Ave.

Still run by the Daughters of Charity in the 20th century St. Vincent’s became a refuge for unwed mothers. In 1901 it was discovered that mosquitoes were the cause of the summer epidemics and the city paved the streets and generally tried to eradicate the puddles of water in which mosquitoes breed. Without the annual epidemics New Orleans was in the happy situation of no longer having enough orphans for St. Vincent’s. St Vincent’s served as a refuge for unwed mothers and their children until the social revolution in the 60’s rendered such a refuge unnecessary. It remained empty for a couple of decades until brought back to life in 1994 as the Guest House you see today.

The clock on top of the carriage house, complete with cool sculpture hanging off the side.

Here’s a closeup of the sculpture on the clock on the carriage house. It’s called “New Orleans Gargoyle” by Thomas Randolph Morrison. Pretty cool, huh. You’re not going to see stuff like this hanging off the Hilton.

Now, the place was far from luxurious. It is primarily a hostel – with a constant flow of young hitchhikers and lost souls (some working at the house in one form or another for discount or free rent) and a wing of dormitories. They do have a spate of regular rooms and ours, being the cheapest, was pretty run down. The usual amenities were non-existent. The sheets had holes, the hot water sporadic, the walls were painted a bilious purple, the towels mismatched, the door key and lock of dubious quality and security, the television ancient and lacking a remote and the curtains didn’t come close to covering the entire windows. The drawers in the dresser didn’t fit, the ventilation rumbled, black sheetrock screws half-screwed into the molding provided clothes and key holders. The pool was covered in black plastic, the furniture mismatched, and empty whiskey bottles littered the common areas.

The only thing that bothered me, really, was a decidedly musty smell in the room, and it went away with a couple days of activity. To be fair, St. Vincent’s was obviously still being repaired from the damage inflicted by the last hurricane and a lot of water had gone through those old walls. We realized that, really, the whole city had that musty smell.

So it wasn’t the Hilton, it wasn’t even the La Quinta… but, my God, what history. New Orleans is a city accommodating and welcoming to spirits and everyone spoke about the ghosts of the orphans and their parents – yellow fever victims – still floating around the place. The hallways were lined with fine polished bronze sculptures. It seems a New Orleans sculptor – Thomas Randolph Morrison – displays all his bronze work in St. Vincent’s. Art – paintings or interesting old photographs – covered the walls.

The sculpture-lined hallway at St. Vincent’s.

A sculpture facing a mirror.

A view out a hallway on the third floor. Like a lot of old buildings built in tropical climates it has very high ceilings (I estimate 20 feet high), balconies, and an open plan for ventilation.

Our wing at St. Vincent’s. If you look closely on the horizon you can see the winged stack of a Carnival Cruise Ship on the Mississippi river.

The carriage house at St. Vincent, with downtown New Orleans and the Superdome in the background.

Now, I certainly can’t recommend the place – it sure has its share of bad Internet reviews – but if you have a little imagination, a sliver of adventurous spirit and, most of all, an open mind, it’s a pretty damn cool place.

Plus, it’s in a great location and it’s only fifty dollars a night.

An old photo on the wall at St. Vincent’s Guest House, showing the original tenants, the young orphans that lost their parents to yellow fever, posed on the stairs.

The same spot, on the same stairs, today.

A tomb from Lafayette Cemetery #1

Everywhere in New Orleans you run into the ghosts of the yellow fever. This is a tomb from the Lafayette Cemetery #1 (not far from St. Vincent’s). I had to mess with the image, the top part was in deep shade. It reads:

Died of Yellow Fever
Sercy,
Born Aug. 29th 1878,
Died Aug. 30th 1878.
 
Mary Love,
Born Oct. 7th 1876,
Died Aug 30th 1878.
 
Edwin Given,
Born Dec. 3rd 1873,
Died Aug. 31st 1878.
 
Such is the Kingdom of Heaven.

In two days that family lost three children, age newborn, three, and five years old.

Dallas Skyline at Dusk

The Dallas Skyline from the Soda Bar on the roof of the NYLO Hotel in Southside. It is a very cool place.

Click to a view higher resolution version on Flickr

Click to view a higher resolution version on Flickr

Click to view a higher resolution version on Flickr

Click to view a higher resolution version on Flickr