Arlene, Faded

This is what her life had become: sitting, hands folded demurely in her lap, waiting for nothing in particular, under a bare bulb in a hotel room of another era. Few people rode trains any more, and those that did rarely changed trains in Joliet, leaving the once-great railroad hotels empty and descending into ruin.

Her life, once promising, had made a similar descent of late. She lived here on the whim of the hotel's owner, a married man with a wife who no longer interested him but was not considered worth the trouble to formally rid himself of. So he lived the rest of his life with his wife far in the background at home, dabbling here and there in business ventures and women that came to intrigue him. Arlene was probably too generous with her favors to him, given the quality of the accommodations those favors provided, but she didn't think enough of her own life to feel appropriately debased.

Sometimes he was insatiable, visiting two or three times a day, and at other times he would ignore her for long, peaceful stretches. She really couldn't see any alternative. A 31-year-old woman of limited skills, she was on her way to becoming a competent housewife when Joe was killed at the steel mill, a half-ton ingot falling from above, blotting out what might have become a comfortable life for her. The mill sent condolences but nothing else, and she quickly lost their tidy apartment in Stern Flats and found herself with nowhere to go.

She checked into the Woodruff Hotel, planning on only a short stay. Her meager savings would last her a while here, as the hotel was decades past its glory, once dark and richly luxurious but becoming more threadbare by the day. Where wealthy travellers and businessmen once mingled in high style, monthly boarders and transients loitered. Garner, the owner, still did well enough with this lower-spending clientele, as he ignored maintenance and laid off the dozens of staff which once catered to a guest's every need and made a stay at the Woodruff a highly pleasurable experience. He did well enough that he could allow a moderately attractive younger woman to stay on after she could no longer pay her bill, assuming of course that she indulged his wishes.

She endured his visits, thinking of them as the price of staying alive. She told herself, At least I'm at the Woodruff, and not that awful St. Regis -- a decrepit, ancient railroad hotel on the other side of the viaduct -- they say the bedbugs there can kill a grown man. Ignoring, of course, what staying at the Woodruff had done to her grown woman's soul.


Copyright 2003, P.J. Anderson