Friday, April 2, 2010

Excerpt from Midnight Motel, a novel in progress by Jessica Turner

Chapter 1

Charlotte pretended to listen to the old man sitting across the desk from her. Charles Flack III droned on and on, pausing to cough every few sentences. She saw the outline of a cigarette pack in his breast pocket and looked down at her hands to hide her eye-roll. The elderly lawyer kept reading from the will in his hands.

"Miss Lewis?" Charles Flack III sounded exasperated. He coughed again, a thick wet sound that made Charlotte grateful that she had never smoked.

"Huh? Oh, yes, I'm sorry. I kind of drifted off there." Charlotte wondered if she should dab at her eyes, put on a show of grief, but one look from the lawyer told her he wouldn't fall for that.

"I was trying to tell you that Mrs. Granston has left you an inheritance."

I kind of figured that, Charlotte thought, but she said, "Aunt Rona left me something? Let me guess -- it was her Kinder Surprise toy collection." Usually Charlotte wouldn't have been so gauche, except that she had spotted the old guy trying to catch a peek down her blouse when she sat down across from him.

"No, that's going to the Omemee Toy Museum," Flack replied.

What the hell was an Omemee Toy Museum? Charlotte didn't want to know. She was still surprised that a distant relative had actually died and left her something. Great Aunt Rona had been something of an eccentric, a 70-year-old cougar who expired while sunning herself in South Beach. Charlotte had tried not to laugh when she received the news; apparently Aunt Rona had been trying to catch the attention of a group of college guys on spring break.

"If you were listening to me, you would know that I was reading your aunt's life story to you," Flack said. "She began with her days when she ran away to join the circus. Didn't she ever tell you about her time as a trapeze artist?"

"Aunt Rona said a lot of things," Charlotte replied.

Flack held up his hand and hacked, deep from his throat. He spit something into a tissue from the box on the desk. "Excuse me. Let's get down to brass tacks, shall we?" He looked down at the will. "She's left you her bank accounts and investment portfolio, totaling in excess of one million dollars, and some property."

Charlotte saw a future devoid of student loans ahead of her, and a Muskoka cottage. She forced herself to keep a straight face even though she was doing cartwheels inside. She wanted to sound casual and unsurprised. Of course she was going to get a million dollar inheritance, didn't everyone when an eccentric relative passed on? What else did rich people think about -- polo? Whether to summer in Florence or Barcelona?

Charlotte almost hightailed it out of Flack's office to Bloor Street West to find her own personal shopper at Chanel. She started daydreaming about cocktail parties where she would casually shake her head to show off her earrings and sigh, "Oh, aren't these darling? Jorge picked them out for me."

"Niagara Falls," Flack said. Charlotte snapped back to reality.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Mrs. Granston has left you a motel in Niagara Falls," he repeated, enunciating each word carefully.

"She left me a what?"

"A motel. A place of lodging in a lively tourist town," Flack said.

"Which side of the Falls?" Charlotte asked.

"The one on land," he shot back.

She sighed, irritated. "Which country?"

"The Canadian side. I believe it's a short walk to Clifton Hill."

"A motel and some money," Charlotte said. At least the million dollars part was good.

The lawyer smiled and coughed. "There's a codicil," he continued, smirking.

"What's that?"

"It's a way for dead people to come back and bite you on the ass from beyond the grave," he explained. "In this case, your great aunt has decided that the money will be held in escrow until you have run that motel for one year. You can do so, and collect your inheritance, or you can refuse, and the money will be donated to her Coronation Street fan club." He set the will on the desk. "Miss Lewis, in addition to being your great aunt's lawyer, I was her friend. You were the only person related to her whom she didn't want to throttle; she just wanted to smack some sense into you. Right before she left for South Beach, she told me about what's going on in your life. You lost your job in February, right?"

Charlotte cringed and nodded. She had been an events coordinator at a major hotel chain.

"You and your boyfriend split up shortly after." Charlotte nodded again. The mention of Brandon made her stomach clench. He had left her for a blonde coworker with a nose job.

"What else do you have to do?" Flack said. "Why not run a quaint little tourist trap for a year and get out of the city? It's nearly impossible for a motel not to make money during the summer months in Niagara."

"Mr. Flack, I used to run the second largest hotel in Toronto," Charlotte said. "I have a diploma in hospitality and hotel management and it's going to waste right now at my current job. You don't need to talk me into this. I run a damn good hotel, and I enjoy it."

"The million dollars might not seem so appealing once you see the condition of the Midnight Motel," Flack said. He lifted a tissue to his lips and Charlotte saw he was hiding a smile. "Managing a cheap boutique might seem a trifle better."

There couldn't be a lot of legitimate jobs worse than her current one. She was a co-manager at a women's apparel shop that sold sleazy clubwear. Charlotte never thought she would see the day she would have to deal with suppliers that sold nipple pasties.

"What's so terrible about this motel?" Charlotte asked. She was already mentally calculating how much it would cost to move what was left of her possessions to Niagara Falls. As her bank balance hovered in the negative dollar amount and she was already delinquent on her rent, she knew it was going to go on her exhausted credit card.

"You'll need to hire new staff immediately," Flack said. "It's presently closed, pending the arrival of its new owner and manager."

"It doesn't even have a housekeeper to help me out?"

"No, there were some problems with the police and health department," Flack said quickly. "Nothing that can't be fixed with a coat of paint and employees with real social insurance numbers. Rona dealt with a couple of those things shortly before she passed, but the former manager skipped bail. The police think he's in Argentina."

Charlotte stared at him.

"Nothing that can't be fixed," Flack repeated breezily. "I think you'll like living in Niagara."
*
Charlotte walked home from Flack's Bay Street-area law office to her new apartment, to save on subway fare. Her financial situation now forced her to choose between public transit and some meager groceries. When she was still working for L'Hôtel Beaulieu -- the HoBo, she and her coworkers had affectionately called it -- she had still been living paycheque to paycheque, but at least she could come home to a beautiful flat in the Annex. Now, she had had to borrow some money from friends to scrape up enough for first and last on a bachelor apartment in a sketchy downtown highrise appropriately called The Grimley. Charlotte always had to hold her breath when she walked through the hallways in case she ever had to take a drug test down the road.

A couple of teenage delinquents were standing in front of The Grimley, smoking a joint. One of them held it out to Charlotte as she fumbled through her purse for her front door key. The building was too cheap to have pass cards.
"Want some?" he asked.

"No thanks," she said, lowering her eyes.

"You're cute," the boy said. "Join us."

"I'm way too old for you."

"I'm seventeen, lady." His friend cackled and stubbed out the joint on the brick wall.

"I'm almost ten years older than you," Charlotte retorted. "Shouldn't you be in school?"

"Suspended," his friend said automatically. "Danny here pulled the fire alarm during the winter play."

Charlotte found her key and unlocked the door. The boy held it open for her and they followed her in. Maybe they live here, Charlotte thought, trying not to panic. Every scary article about single women she had ever read in Cosmo went through her mind. "That wasn't very nice," she said.

"You ever see Godspell?" Danny asked. "It fuckin' sucks, man."

"No, I haven't," Charlotte answered. She pressed a button for an elevator. Only one appeared to be working, and it was running far too slowly. The boys took places next to her, one on either side. Danny had to be at least six feet tall and towered over her five foot four frame. Her heart started to pound.

The elevator door opened and the three of them boarded. Charlotte pressed the button for the fourth floor; the boys didn't press one. "What's going on?" she said to them. Her voice was more afraid than she would have preferred. She thought back to her kickboxing phase last year and hoped she could remember the moves.

"We're going to the fourth floor," said Danny's friend. "Duh. Our dealer lives there."

The door opened and the three of them stepped off the elevator. Charlotte's apartment was almost directly across from it. The boys saw her grappling with her keys in fright, and they went to the end of the hallway. Danny pounded on one of the doors. "Lady," his friend called. "Danny likes old chicks, not me. Stop being so fucking stuck-up. You're not that hot."

Fear gave way to indignation. Charlotte let herself into her apartment and slammed the door. Since when was late twenties old? Damn kids.

Charlotte had taken the day off work and her appointment with the lawyer Flack hadn't taken nearly as long as she expected, so she was free the rest of the day. She gazed around the dismal bachelor apartment with a critical eye. She still felt out of place here; The Grimley's tenants usually didn't fill their closets with tailored skirt suits and faux alligator pumps. She wondered if Aunt Rona would have left her the Midnight Motel had shown she had been fired with cause. She saw something move in the corner of her eye, near the stove. She tiptoed to the square of linoleum in the kitchenette and saw a huge black bug scurrying toward the cabinet under the sink. She brought a low-heeled leather shoe on it and heard it squish, and she shuddered. Was that a cockroach? God only knew how bad the bug situation was going to be when the weather got hot.

It was time to say goodbye to the city that kept shutting her out. She was tired of being reminded of her old life every time she saw the HoBo's huge structure fawning over downtown Toronto. She ran into Brandon at least once a week, and he usually had his new girlfriend with him. She didn't have any family remaining in the city and most of her friends had brushed her off since she had been fired from the HoBo. She had nothing left here.

A couple of pigeons cooed on her postage stamp-sized balcony and relieved themselves on the railing. Charlotte turned away in disgust. Goodbye, horrible one-room apartment, she thought.

Goodbye to the drug dealers down the hall and their creepy underage clientele, goodbye to Brandon and his nose-jobbed girlfriend, goodbye to short-turning streetcars. Farewell to the looming shadow of her failure at the HoBo.

Her suitcases were still half-packed and served as a dresser; hers had been sold to help make rent. She opened one and started transferring clothes to it from her lone closet. Despite Flack's description of the motel, nothing could be worse than The Grimley.

She found her cellphone and called her workplace. One of the clerks answered the phone and snapped her gum. Dammit, how many times had Charlotte told them not to chew gum on the sales floor? Oh, well, it didn't matter anymore.

"It's Charlotte," she said by way of introduction. "I quit."

"What?" said the clerk.

"Are you dense? Don't answer that, I know you are. I quit. You girls are on your own," said Charlotte. "I'm a millionaire, or I will be soon."

"Huh?"

Charlotte hung up the phone. She figured out how much she had left on her credit card -- certainly enough to rent a cube van to get her stuff to Niagara Falls. She only had her bed and a coffee table now, and her clothes. She could move everything on her own.

She filled one suitcase and zipped it shut. She could leave tomorrow, if she could reserve a van in time. She sat on the bed and smiled. Things were looking up.
*
Jessica Turner grew up in Peterborough, Ontario, and now lives and writes in Toronto. In between plotting world domination she takes pictures of trains and publishes a zine called Mitten on an irregular basis. Mitten is available here, but anyone interested in a copy, just email Jessice at jlturner@rogers.co

Note: For information about Brian Henry's writing workshops and creative writing courses, see here.

2 comments: