[Originally posted Jan 2013]
For the same reason an author will adapt another writer’s work, or perhaps in a similar way fan fiction writers are inspired, my father’s writing has often been an inspiration to me. The following is a first draft adaption of his short story, Image in the Mirror
At the top of the hill the driver paused to shift gears, and then plunged the bus down the steep slope into town. Excited, Helen Kramer craned her head up over the seat in front of her, and then out over the center aisle to get a view of what lay ahead. A cobalt-blue ocean burst into view over the top of the pines and oaks, rearing up against a perfect powder-blue sky. As the bus continued to descend, small buildings painted in various colors began to appear through the trees. She had finally arrived.
The bus stopped at the corner by the library. The library was surprisingly large, but had a quaint little charm like the rest of the buildings. It, along with all else Helen could see from her limited perspective through the bus window, was just how she pictured everything from her childhood memory.
Along with Helen, three people got off the bus and scattered in different directions. The driver stepped out of the bus behind them, walked to the luggage compartment and flung the hatch open, banging it against the side of the bus.
“Which one was it?” the bus driver called over to Helen. She had walked a couple of steps the opposite direction, her thoughts buffering out all other sounds but the distant roar of the surf and the hum of the breeze through the pines.
“Excuse me? Ma’am? Which one?”
Helen came back to, “Oh, yeah, sorry…um…the big brown one…sorry, it’s kinda heavy.”
The driver hauled Helen’s monstrous suitcase out and swung it onto the curb. “No kiddin’. Hope you have someone comin’ to get’cha. Thing’s a heavy sucker.”
Most of what Helen gave a damn about was crammed into the massive suitcase and she was glad to have it, regardless its impossible size and weight. Her neighbor was really sweet to give it to her.
“Keep the thing, honey. I never go away anymore, not like that. Just to my son’s place for the weekend, you know? You met him that one time. I only use my smaller case when I go there, and anyway, that thing is just too damn big.”
“Oh, well, I couldn’t just take it, Mrs. Mitchell. I’ll ship it back, or I can pay you something for it…”
“No, no! You’ve been a dear and a good neighbor. I’ll miss you! But believe you me, honey, I get it. You’re a good kid. You’ll do fine. Think of it as a going-away gift kiddo. You’ll be OK.”
The bus driver smiled at Helen as he got back on the bus and she thanked him with a couple of dollars’ tip. The gears groaned back into motion and the bus pulled away. Helen watched as it drove a couple blocks and then turned right, heading back to the city.
She was here. She was finally here! Helen inhaled deeply, consuming the air as if to gather all of its essences in one breath. She could smell pine trees and the sea. She could also smell exhaust fumes from the passing cars and stale kitchen odors from a diner across the street, but these she carefully dismissed and thought only with intense satisfaction about the pines and the salt air.
Helen noticed two elderly men seated on a bench in the library courtyard. They didn’t pause in their animated conversation, nor seemed to notice the attention she was directing towards them, though it seemed to her that the entire world must be able to feel the flush of her excitement. But Helen didn’t care. Being noticed with impersonal curiosity was not part of her scheme of things. She was ready for newness; anxiously sitting on what she hoped was the verge of surprise; the edge of fulfillment. Oh, how totally fantastic! Just keep smelling the air, the air, and keep drowning in all that sunshine!
Helen didn’t have a plan; she rarely, if ever, did. Go left? Go right? Stand still, move along? Helen went back in her mind to when she made the decision to leave the city and come here, which seemed as much of a plan as anyone should have to make. She tried to remember if she had thought much beyond getting away and getting here. Helen was unaccustomed to figuring things out. Someone always seemed to be doing that for her, but it wasn’t until this moment, standing on a corner in a tiny seaside town that she realized someone else was usually making decisions for her.
“Well, you can’t just keep standing here like some sort of idiot,” Helen muttered to herself.
She looked at the two old men again, and wondered if they might tell her where she could stay the night. They seemed so engrossed in their conversation, she hated to interrupt. She turned and looked across the street at the diner and suddenly the idea of a cup of coffee and something sweet to eat sounded good, regardless the stench of old fry oil billowing out of the giant vent on the roof. She picked up her suitcase with great effort, leaning way over to one side to counter balance its great weight, and hobbled across the street, the case bashing against her shins as it swung with her uneven gait.
The sign just inside the door said “Seat Yourself.” Helen caught the waitress’ attention and asked if she could leave her suitcase by the chairs at the door. The woman shrugged. Helen dropped it with a thud and took a seat in the closest stool at the counter. The waitress handed her a menu and offered coffee.
“Yes, and sugar.”
“Right there in front of you,” the waitress indicated with a slight nod of her head as she walked. Helen started to place an order for a sweet roll or scone, but had to wait until the waitress returned with a small pitcher of what was probably just milk and not half and half. Helen knew living here would mean she’d have to make some adjustments.
“Oh, you gotta be here early in the morning for that,” the waitress said to Helen in response to her question of pastry. “We always sell out cinnamon rolls right away. Still have plenty of bagels, though. English muffins, too. Toasted or with cream cheese?”
“A bagel with cream cheese, thanks. Not toasted. Thanks!”
The coffee was OK, but more importantly, it was hot. Helen took comfort from its warmth and fragrance. She watched out the window as she sipped from the cup. Cars anxiously crowded one another on the street. People with the purposeful aimlessness of tourists strolled and looked around. The two old men were still chatting on the bench, one of them now gesturing vehemently, the other looking down at his feet and shaking his head from side to side in rhythmic negation of everything the other was saying. It was a pleasant and appealing scene.
Drawing into herself, Helen began to think. A plan. OK, well…I will live in this little town now and forget about the city. That was as far as she could get at the moment. Her mind wandered off over memories of the beach cottages her parents rented when they came here in the summers all those years ago, and then it occurred to her she’d get herself one of those to rent! She was sure she could get a cottage for what she was paying for the studio flat she had in the city. After all, wasn’t it supposed to be much cheaper to live in a little place like this? She didn’t need to be right on the beach, when she thought more about it, but near the beach, of course. She could save a little bit if she didn’t go for a place right on the beach, anyway. That much she knew.
“Top off?” the waitress interrupted.
“Sure, yes. Thanks.”
Now, work. And I will get a job in some cute little shop, she thought. Helen imagined a gift shop jammed with all sorts of precious nick-knacks, owned by a totally darling husband and wife. They’ll introduce me to their friends, she thought, and I’ll get to meet people from all over who come to vacation here and happen to wander into the shop. And in my cottage I will do my own cooking instead of always going to the deli. The warmth of the coffee made Helen hope she would find a place with a fireplace. She imagined sitting in a big, over-stuffed chair reading books, listening to music on a radio and taking long walks on the beach. Maybe she’d join the little theater group she remembered was here, they looked like they were having so much fun, and learn to paint and wear sandals all the time and be free and untroubled. And she would live a straightforward life because she figured people who live in small town were nothing if not straightforward.
Helen felt very proud of herself. She had made a plan, probably the first comprehensive plan she had ever made entirely on her own.
“ ‘nother top off?” The waitress was back.
Helen didn’t want any more coffee, but just as she had nowhere to go when she got off the bus, she now had nowhere to go when she finished her coffee and bagel. Sitting in the diner all day didn’t fit the spirit of the plan.
“Ah, no, thanks, I’m done!” The waitress placed the bill on the counter.
Helen dreaded the idea of a traveler’s dreary economy hotel. Those places were always such dives. But, she knew she had to make every penny last as long as it took to get a job. If she was lucky, which she planned to be, she’d only have to stay in a place like that for a few days. As she paid her bill, she asked the waitress if she could suggest a decent place.
“I totally forgot to make reservations somewhere,” Helen laughed nervously.
The waitress gave her a sideways glance, took her payment and began to wipe the counter. Helen knew the woman was judging her, but whatever. She had a plan. She patiently waited for a reply. The waitress stopped wiping the counter and peered at some distant point out the window.
“I guess the Hillside Vista Inn would be OK,” she finally answered, and returned to wiping the counter.
“Oh, where is that?”
“You go up the main drag here,” the waitress waved with the cloth at the street outside, “When you get to Elm, turn left. It’s down a block or two. Maybe three. I’ve never been there myself,” the waitress continued without taking a breath, as if to make sure her disclaimer did not go unheard, “but I guess it’s alright. People who stay there eat here lots of times,” she concluded.
Helen wasn’t sure of the correlation between the place being “alright” and its guests eating here, but she’d just have to go with the recommendation. Hauling that suitcase around town looking for other hotels was not an option.
“Oh, I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Helen said quickly. “Thanks. And, I guess, I’ll eat here, too!” She made a weird gesture with her arm, like the kind she’d remembered the actors in the community theater make. The waitress politely smiled and greeted a couple as they walked in the door. Helen placed a small tip of random coins from the bottom of her purse on the counter, heaved up her suitcase and with great effort, went out the door and started up the street.
One drawback to small town life, she realized, was the absence of a taxi she could flag down. She assumed she could call for one, but there wasn’t a phone booth in sight. She could double back to the library, which probably had a payphone somewhere near the entrance, but the thought of hauling her heavy suitcase back down the bit of hill she had just managed to climb irked her. And, what if there wasn’t a phone book? So many payphones didn’t have them anymore. She’d have to ask someone for a number, and now all of this wondering about how to get a taxi was just getting too complicated to think any more about. Then a sudden horrible thought popped in. Oh, God. Hopefully the hotel has a vacancy. She realized she should have asked the waitress if she could use the phone she saw on the wall by the register and called ahead to see if the place even had a vacancy.
For the second time in as many hours, Helen was just standing in the middle of the sidewalk, frozen by a characteristic inability to solve even the simplest of problems. She had this plan she figured out over coffee, but now things were muddled again. She floated away inside her head to some vague place, staring blankly in front of her for how long she didn’t know. It must have been a while, though because she gradually became aware that she had become an object of curiosity to people walking by. Snapping back to, Helen again lifted her burden and started back up the hill, the case bashing against her shin as before.
On approach, the Hillside Vista Inn seemed OK. It didn’t look like a dive, which she dreaded would be the case, but then nothing in this town looked anything but clean and welcoming. Helen hobbled through the lobby doors and dropped the suitcase.
The lobby was tiny, with an unpretentious air of plain comfort. The ceiling was low and the walls were of a dark wood paneling which made the room seem even smaller. A surprisingly gigantic rock fireplace completely covered the wall opposite the registration desk, which was very small in comparison. It had one of those old-style Dutch doors with a counter that stuck out into the room on top of the lower door. It looked more a closet than an office. Helen felt as though she had walked into a scene of one of those old black and white movies.
“Hello. Can I help you?” A disembodied voice came from somewhere behind the Dutch door, and then a slim man came into view. He couldn’t have been much taller than she, with a long sort of horse-shaped face with oddly wide-set eyes. Helen was trying to figure out if he looked like an old young guy, or a young-looking older guy. He smiled continuously, as if that were the only facial expression he knew how to make. It made Helen think of jokes people made about the results of bad plastic surgery. He wore a white button-down shirt with short sleeves, no tie and a gold name tag that read, Hello My Name is… TED
“Yes! I need a room.”
“Do you have a reservation?” the clerk obligatorily asked.
“No, that’s the thing…I didn’t think to…No. I don’t.” Helen almost launched into the excuses she made to the waitress earlier, but waved it off with her hand. “I just arrived…anyway, I heard about your place from the diner down the hill a bit,” Helen concluded, indicating the general direction from where she had just come with a flutter of fingers in the air.
“Andersons?” the clerk asked as he turned back into inside the small office, back out of sight. Helen could hear the punching of keys on a computer.
“Hmm? Oh, the diner? Yes…I think that was the name. Didn’t really notice.” Helen moved closer so she could see the clerk.
“All our guests eat there!” He still had his perfunctory smile plastered on his face as he stared at the computer screen and continued to click away on the keyboard.
“Yeah, she said that…”
“The waitress. She said that people who stay here eat there.”
“OK! So, now…all set. How many nights?”
“Oh, thank God, you have something?”
“How many nights do you need, Miss?”
“Well, that’s the thing. I need to find a place to live, but until then I need a place to stay.”
“I see.” The clerk had not once dropped the corners of his mouth, “Yes, I see,” he continued, “Well, we can accommodate your needs, of course, but, well, let’s see…” he resumed tapping at the keyboard. Helen leaned over the counter a bit and saw that he was only using his index fingers.
“I have a room you can have for five nights, but then after that we’d have to either move you to another room, or, well, we’ll see.” He turned back toward her, his perma-smile waiting her reply.
“Alrighty, then…” the clerk got down to business, pulling out paperwork, opening and closing unseen drawers, pulling out the credit card slider (“Oh, I’ll be paying with cash,” Helen remarked) and tapping away some more at the computer. Helen took the key he handed her. She was amazed that the room was only going to be $150 for all five days.
“Coffee, tea and donuts are available here in the lobby each morning from 6:00 to 8:00,” the clerk cheerfully declared. “Sometimes danish, but mostly donuts.”
Helen thanked him and heaving up her giant suitcase one more time, walked over to the elevator, a small and rickety contraption that groaned under the weight of the case as it very, very slowly made its way to the second floor. The elevator stopped and nothing happened. Helen waited a moment and then looked to the panel for a “Door Open” button or some such when she noticed a handwritten sign, “PLEASE…be patient with the elevator! The doors will open eventually. DO NOT push any buttons as this will freeze the elevator. Thank you, The Management.” By the time she finished reading the sign the doors opened part way and the elevator jerked up, startling Helen into wondering if it was about to suddenly drop to the ground floor. The doors then continued to slowly open the rest of the way.
Helen stood for a moment as her eyes adjusted to the gloom of her room. Looking around, she didn’t know if she was pleased the Hillside Vista Inn had a vacancy, saving her from having to go all over town looking for one if not, or shocked that she ended up in the worst hotel room ever. The plaster walls were marked with scuffs and bruises. Water stains of dirty yellow drooped down the wall beside the window, which was draped with narrow panels of ocher-colored cotton. The window itself stared balefully at a bright white concrete block wall of the building adjacent to the hotel, which was reflecting the sun back into the room like one of those huge flood lights that left you blinded if you looked right into it. Despite the brilliance of this light, it did nothing to illuminate anything except what was directly in its path, which was the grey-ish, matted and stained carpet.
The furniture consisted of just a few pieces. A small, low bureau whose varnished surface was emblazoned with white glass-stain rings stood squarely in the middle of one wall. A wood chair was lurking beside the door as if waiting for a chance to get out. A tiny table was in the corner was under the window with a plastic sign standing proudly erect that read, “Welcome to The Hillside Vista Inn. Enjoy your stay at the beach!” A large day bed, the kind she remembered her grandparents once had that doubled as a couch in their living room was on the opposite side from the bureau, covered in a duvet that Helen could tell from where she stood was probably better suited for the bedding of a pet dog.
To her left, just inside the room from the hall, Helen caught a glimpse of herself in a full length mirror that hung on what she assumed was the door to the bathroom. She stood staring at herself, transfixed by the way the harsh reflected sunlight from the window cut across the upper half of her face, highlighting the self-applied blonde streaks in her hair and only the top of one eye. The striking contrast between the light and dark slice across her face caught her off-guard. She looked a disquieting form of her unguarded self. It strangely reminded her of her father.
Looking around the room again, Helen was determined to ignore the sudden knot in her stomach. As she dropped the suitcase on its side and shoved it with her feet, pushing it with great effort across the floor toward the bureau, she thought back on the day she decided she had to leave, and go someplace far enough away. She thought about the day she quit her job, walking out of her apartment building for the last time, the bus ride, the sunshine, sea air and pines. She crossed over to the day bed and plopped down. She thought about the fireplace in the lobby, imagining a fire roaring away, the world all tucked quietly inside warm houses for the night. She closed her eyes and imagined being drawn up close to the fire reading a book she purchased from one of the bookstores she saw in the village. She thought of the little store she would work in, lunches at the diner, the cottage she would eventually call home, visits from her brothers and their families, maybe even her folks.
The gentle narcotic of her imagination worked its way through her body, soothing and calming her. It was alright. She had a plan. The room was dingy and disappointing, but it was clean, and it was cheap, and it was hers for five days. She opened her eyes, got up and walked over to check out the bathroom. She was fully faced in the mirror this time. The sun had moved lower, illuminating all of her features.