Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

The Home Jar

Nancy Zafris
From Prairie Schooner, Vol. 85, No. 3 (Fall 2011)

Most of the travelers who come through our doors are not at all like Mr. Smith. They are polite, honest, what my night manager calls decent folk, and as thoughtful of others as they can be in the midst of their purposeful lives. Guests do not come to our hotel simply to vacation. We're not located in that kind of city. They are here for some industrious function, for a state government meeting, for example, or to attend a convention. If they are here otherwise, there is usually something wrong. We recently had a couple who stayed two weeks, waiting for an organ donation for their infant daughter. In the middle of the night they were summoned by the university hospital. Carrie Mae and Rita, who took the call, tracked them down with me at the pool. This man and his wife were sitting in chairs, staring ahead at nothing. The pool made the air dense. Upon news of the hospital's summons, the husky face of the mother, pockmarked and worried, suddenly lit up with delight. The effect, quite honestly, was frightful. All our hotel staff emptied onto the street, weeping, almost everyone weeping, and waving good luck. The taxi sped off to the fanfare awaiting at the hospital.

In the glare of the couple's elated faces no one saw the darker energy running quite apart from anxiety for their dying daughter. It was something I recognized from my own eluding of danger and tragedy: behind the brain's curtain runs a pleasure that is against your own will. This man and his wife, they were overweight, country folk. No one had ever listened to them before. They were relishing the sense of their own importance. They were enjoying the show that for once in their lives was all about them. It was the same feeling I had leaving my country, my wife, my two children. My face grew old in a week's passage under the weight of so many conflicting emotions, yet each time I handed over my passport or had my baggage sniffed by dogs and then fingered item by item before my eyes, or was asked to wait against a wall, I considered all the money and endless logistics and international agreements that enforced these precautions, and it was as if the whole world was for a moment focused solely on me. That was a sensation I liked, and only by pressing myself hard against the wall could I tamp down what threatened to become a smile. Yet even with my poker face the officials must have sensed some wayward emotion, for I was stopped and questioned and searched time and time again. I could well relate to these young confused parents, even though they were American, white, fed overly much but not fed well at all, even though they had never heard of my nation, even though they were no more than tv watchers who had been pulled from their favorite programs to deal with a tragedy. They were like so many others, in the great cities of the world or in my messy village—average, complacent people with no great thoughts and no reason to think them, for whom comes a violent knock on the door that will drive them to ruin or to triumph.

Mr. Smith, however, is nothing like this couple, and Mr. Smith is what I'm here to talk about. Nor is he anything like our other guests. During his latest trip to Ohio it fell upon me to attend to him. I brought his luggage up to his room and laid out the big rectangular suitcase on the rack. It was and is hard for me to tell the ages of Americans, but I can tell you his appearance. He was tanned, and the vertical line scoring each side of his jaw was something in America that would make him handsome. It was carved there through hard work in the gym, not by the hard work of just existing in some wretched place without sunscreen. Mr. Smith was wearing a gray crewneck sweater. Across the chest of the sweater was threaded a colorful ekg. A maroon design spiked up and down, duplicated by a turquoise line pulsing underneath. I couldn't help but think of the man (and his heavy, pockmarked wife) who had departed just a few hours earlier, so carelessly beefy where Mr. Smith was trim, so simple in their emotions— grief/hope—where he was calibrated (even then, that was already my impression). Mr. Smith wore khaki pants. His shoes looked as comfortable as slippers. They were soft leather with rubbery soles. What called the most attention to him was his hair. It was longish and cut in one length and it was swept back as if by the wind. It was also unusually yellow. So that is what he looked like. He wasn't young, but like I said, I couldn't guess his age beyond that.

After finishing with his suitcase, I checked the bedside lamps, tested the hair dryer, jiggled the toilet handle. I paused in the bathroom for a few extra seconds. There was something there: a vague smell of chlorine. When I breathed it in, that man and his wife sprang to life again, sitting in the pool area in the middle of the night, some other presence in the thick odorous air. Catching myself, I jerked back to my duties and quickly made my way to the door.

Although I am grateful for them, I still find it embarrassing to receive tips. Mr. Smith stopped me. "Ho there." He fished in his pockets and came up empty. "Wait," he said when my hand reached again for the doorknob.

Now he had flipped open the suitcase I had laid out for him and was checking under the folded layers of his clothes. "You guys turn on all the lights to buy time, don't you?"

My first impulse was to make a mental note of the phrase "to buy time" so I could absorb it later. I thought of and kept to myself a remark I might have made about the importance in this case of making sure the hair dryer worked for the sake of his beautiful hair. I could have made the observation that peeking under carefully folded clothes for loose money seemed itself a none too subtle counterfeit and at precisely the same moment as these possibilities played out (the workings of the brain fascinate me—for example, thinking of that rural couple praying in the hospital, for I knew they would be praying, while simultaneously finding myself fascinated by Mr. Smith's appearance) I understood what he was saying —that turning on the lights was a way to play indigent.

Mr. Smith was accusing me.

"I am not a beggar, Mr. Smith."

"You know my name." He turned around with a vivid smile, an outsized reaction that did not match in tone my remark to him or his simple reply to me. I had become aware that the name Smith was just like Tesfai, the most common of names at home. My own name, in fact, is Tesfai. I thought of my wife and two daughters, how they were named exactly as so many others, so many thousands upon thousands as to make them less than one. I could go days without thinking about them even while everything I did, every minute I worked, every dollar and quarter I shoved into an old jar, was devoted to them. My nephew, who lived with me, thought nothing of raiding this jar for his own pleasure until I took a stick to him and beat at him with all my might, chasing him from apartment to hallway to stairwell to backyard, a crowd swelling behind us. It was just the two of us in a one-bedroom apartment near the airport. I slept on the couch so that he could have his indulgence of a private room. I had given him all this. I was not going to let him steal from my savings. The cheering crowd seemed to agree with me.

Mr. Smith continued to fish in his suitcase. This time I opened the door and stepped out. He followed me into the hall and clasped my forearm to pull me back in. "I'm getting there," he said.

I said nothing although my mind was racing. When I say something I think it should be well phrased and well enunciated—and, for example, I hate the way my nephew has begun to mutter at me, especially as I have given up my room for him, especially as I more often than not use the kitchen sink for shaving and brushing my teeth. He has begun going out with boys other than Eritreans, not the Somalis but the Americans, black boys who couldn't look or act more dissimilar. They are big where he is not, variantly colored and featured, and rude. Yet to other Americans' sharpless eyes Lucas is not differentiated, so this is something new I have to worry about, the fact that Lucas will be taken for an American black. Each night after school he goes directly from the school bus to the library, where I pick him up after work. He is in the eighth grade and has recently turned fourteen. No one knows he isn't my son. At the library I've watched him at the computers with his group of comrades, a fatherless boy who seems too happy with his friends. His mother didn't live long enough to teach him manners that would stick. He has started thrusting his hands across his face and chest when he speaks, and when I tell him to stop he switches to English and turns that language into a terrible mumbling sound. From behind a pillar I've observed a librarian scuttle over and admonish his group when they are too loud, almost yelling at each other, their hands all doing a dance. Lucas looks up at the librarian with eyes so dark they glisten as to become their opposite, white diamonds. He glows with beauty, yet what comes out of his mouth is slack and dirty as coal. And when the librarian leaves, he and his group are silent but holding back grenades of laughter. This seems sinful in light of the fact that I watched his father die (which I know is unfair, as if Lucas should live his life sadly, his father never leaving his thoughts). At the international clinic the pattern of my brother's heart loped across the screen, vibrantly patterned exactly as that imprint upon Mr. Smith's sweater, the maroon and turquoise threads of health and happiness and wisdom, all the things we came to America to search for. And now my nephew has health. And he'll have wealth if he starts stealing from others the way he has started to steal from me. And he has happiness with his friends —too much so, his happiness like the fumes of gasoline.

So you can see that receiving a tip prompts in me an unreasonable bout of hapless mental wanderings. Carrie Mae and Rita tell me to just say thank you, honey (a compelling idea until I realized the honey was directed at me) but just as we don't match as people, what words we use cannot match either. Carrie Mae and Rita can keep themselves awake through their shift by laughing all night as if their impossibly big chests are fueled with an eight-hour supply of caffeinated guffaws. They can say thank you, honey, and it would work because American black women with impossibly big chests can say that; people like them to say it.

Mr. Smith said, "You got it down, don't you, man?" That seemed unfair since I had already once made my departure, since it was he who had pulled me back from the corridor. The phrase I had practiced in my head died in my throat. Mr. Smith had seemed someone equal to my tangled politesse, someone who wouldn't think it absurd to trade formalities with me. He handed over two dollars. And what did I say? Nothing. But I did tuck my head into a bow, and I heard from him a dry cough, which I interpreted as a chuckle.

That evening I was working an extra shift when Mr. Smith left for dinner. I was there to take his parking ticket. I had been getting extra work as the parking attendant ever since three employees had been fired for overcharging. The line of waiting cars extended into the abyss of the parking garage. There had been a rape here two months earlier, somewhere back in those dark recesses, yet none of us, including the women, thought of this as a dangerous job. The garage was open twenty-four hours a day, and even Fawzia, an astonishingly beautiful Somali girl who often did the night shift, had met no trouble.

The face behind the windshield of the third car was erased by the cavernous shadow, but I could see the glow of Mr. Smith's yellow mane.

I had some trouble getting the time clock to accept his ticket. I wondered if he thought I was stalling. It was as if we had a great deal of history between us, yet all that was between us were a few lines of English and of course the cauldron of criss-crossing thoughts I had poured into those few lines. Had those thoughts been expressed we would have had a relationship, perhaps a friendship. But that had not happened. The time clock finally punched out its tally.

"That's a hefty fee," he said. Well, there was another word for me to write down. Mr. Smith, disconcerting as he was, was good for my education. I enjoyed the visitors most who could teach me new words. Sadly, I hadn't learned a thing in two weeks from the young parents with the dying infant. They had been connected by satellite from the hospital to a talk show that very morning and we had all watched. The university hospital had performed a multiple organ transplant among three infants, two living, one a donor. The husband and wife were lumped on a couch, their bodies indistinguishable, their hands emerging from a single limb and twining together. Their voices quavered, and they spoke using the vocabulary words I could no longer hear without thinking of them: God, mercy, judgment, hope, love. Carrie Mae and Rita were bouncing up and down in front of the tv, waiting to hear their own names called out and blessed on national tv, and it was strange, I too found myself anticipating right along with them and was disappointed (surprisingly so) when my name wasn't singled out for deepest gratitude. We had been their family for two weeks, night and day; we had talked of life-and-death issues in the most simplistic of terms but with a kind of frankness that neither of them, they told us, had experienced in their whole lives, and they marveled that this kind of intimacy and affection had happened with people who were so very different from them, the kind of people they had never met before in their small town but only heard about and about whom had formed opinions they now saw were wrong, and they had come to the conclusion that we were angels of God sent down in disguise. This profound bond we thought we had formed might have been true or might have been false—I think it was true—but in either case it was over.

"Do you gouge all your customers?" Mr. Smith's tiny car hadn't left the parking garage. His fingers still snaked inside the coin well to retrieve his credit card.

"We like to buy time, Mr. Smith." He gave no sign that he recognized me. Nevertheless I was pleased with my inside joke. I relived it as I took the bus to the library. When I got to the computer section, barely before their eight o'clock closing, Lucas was alone. He was starving. The day's tip money intended for the jar I spent on fast food, value meals supersized beyond my salary. But Lucas loved the food, and I had kept him waiting too long.

Admittedly, the people who come for conventions like to have a little fun in the midst of their business at hand, and sometimes they can get loud enough that we have to phone up to their rooms. Usually just the mildest rebuke quiets them down. Mr. Smith doesn't like noise and all of the staff know this and he is never put on any of the floors where conventioneers stay. The people here for the state legislature meetings tend to be quiet, unless they are lobbyists or the representatives themselves. We keep them on a different floor as well. But in the end, Mr. Smith requested that the rooms to either side of him be kept empty. He requested this nicely, with that smile of his that seems so at odds with what he says, and he paid for the empty rooms as well. All this I was told by Carrie Mae and Rita. Despite their levity, they refer to the male customers as gentlemen. They stay polite about guests even when talking between themselves. Carrie Mae has five grandchildren already and one of her daughters has a drug problem and has been in jail and the two kids are going here and there because they have different fathers, one of whom is also in jail. The unjailed one doesn't want to take care of the one who is not his. Rita has a daughter who graduated from college and is a management trainee at a rental car company in Los Angeles. Her son received a partial athletic scholarship to college, a good athlete but, as she says, "not good enough to ruin his life." He's now an insurance agent at Nationwide and lives in town and often stops by. He looks good in a white shirt and tie. Carrie Mae and Rita have these conversations about their family very often. I am always worried about being asked to participate, and on this morning my fears seemed about to become justified. They called me over—just as I was about to duck away and escape. The two of them together melt into each other, and they talk like soul mates, and the differences in their children, though grave from all appearances, seem to them more like differences in the foods they prefer. That's nice for them, they are good women with expansive emotions, but the gulf between us is something they couldn't understand, the gulf itself I mean, and I don't want my family members treated like an exotic food item that with one taste can suffice their understanding. "Tesfai," they called again.

There was no avoiding them.

I needn't have worried. That "weird blond guy gentleman" I'd met yesterday was on his way to the hotel gym, they told me, and I needed to stand guard and make sure no one else entered while he did his workout. He's mister important gentleman, they laughed, and I went off to the workout room and pressed my face against the darkened glass until I could see Mr. Smith, in white shorts and a tangerine polo shirt. His chin was thrust upward as he walked the treadmill, and with his hair swept back, he looked as ever in some kind of godlike pose, even though it was the overhead tv responsible for his posture. He glanced over and saw me outside the door and signaled hello. I took this to mean he was also contentedly alone, that I needn't enter and check. His gait on the treadmill was indefinably his. I took up guard out of sight. After forty or fifty minutes I was bored enough to try to imitate Mr. Smith's gait, which I did, up and down the corridor. I had to use the restroom. Although I was quick, still I peeked through the glass to make sure no one had entered in my absence. Mr. Smith was lying on a bench, shoving barbells above his head. He put the barbells back in their rack and whipped a towel around his neck. He held on tightly to each end of the towel, his head slumped from the weight of being pulled. His body heaved heavily and I thought he might fall over. Then he straightened and shrugged his shoulders up and down and stretched his arms up high and pushed them against the wall to force them higher. His workout was over. I hurried away to ensure his privacy.

Downstairs the lobby had been thrown into chaos. A convention in town for a cheerleading competition meant that the lobby was crowded with girls dressed in their team outfits. Large duffel bags littered the floor. The parents were clothed in stretch jeans and sweatshirts. The heavier mothers had short hair with the front part curled unstylishly and all of them to me began to look alike. The men, with bellies and baseball caps, kept relifting the duffel bags whose bright thick letterings PANTHERS! WARRIORS! STRIKERS! seemed to express their own panic as fathers. I took note of the parents because they were in such contrast to their attractive cheerleading daughters. This gave me a spasm of joy. I saw the infant daughter of the heavyset rural couple in the hospital. She had grown up to become beautiful, and her unbeautiful parents were overflowing with pride.

It took at least two hours to clear the lobby, directing everyone to the convention center, helping to carry down duffel bags, and making phone calls to coaches and other teammates when their cell phones gave out.

Afterward I was sitting in a corner, ending my shift with a cup of tea, when one of the maids came down. In the preternatural quiet of the empty lobby I heard the pounce of her sneakered feet. I could see she was upset. By now Carrie Mae and Rita had gone home and Smooshie was working the front desk. "You left your housekeeping cart?" Smooshie confronted the maid. "You need to get back up there." She picked up a ringing phone. "Go," she ordered the maid. "I'll take care of it." Distractedly she waved me over, then ignored me until she hung up the phone and typed something into the computer. "One of the maids has a problem," she said. "That old white guy with the bleached hair." Smooshie wasn't someone who smiled much or bothered to explain, and she didn't call them gentlemen. "Room 886," she said.

I stood there.

Her eyebrows drew together and she locked her gaze on me. "So go up there."

On the eighth floor, the maid complaining downstairs had already returned to her cart where she stood, staring down at her cell phone. She clucked at me as I passed. I was irritated enough to wheel around. I was not proceeding any farther until she was well down the hall. In fact, I followed her. We glared at each other as the elevator doors pulled shut. Most likely a guest would have seen this hand-to-hand combat as nation against nation, but it was just two individuals caught in differently shaded foul moods.

When I opened the door to room 886, the strong scent of bath gel greeted me. A recent shower had left the room weighted with humidity. Mr. Smith was lying on the bed, motionless, his eyes closed peacefully. His ironed pristine khakis were pulled on and buckled. A starched blue shirt was neatly tucked in. The arms of an orange sweater were tied around his neck so that it fell about his collar as an insouciant bowtie. He was barefoot and his feet below the ironed khaki pants looked, well, I can think of no other word for it: happy. His feet were happy and naked. Unironed feet against the starchness of his clothes. The toes were long and visibly jointed and knuckly, as if they might have their own life as gainfully active equals to his hands.

Spread out on the bed like this, Mr. Smith seemed like a beachcomber contentedly drunk upon the sand. His wrists were handcuffed to the bar across the headboard. Next to him on the royally immense bed was space enough for another spread-eagled body. I glanced to see if the mattress and bedspread had been disturbed in any way. All was smooth beside him.

With that, just as my observations came to a close, Mr. Smith opened his eyes. He stared up at me with a smile. He was clearly waiting for me to say something, but I did not.

"Forty winks and I wake up to this," he said.

"Do you have keys?" I asked.

"Don't know," he said. "Do I?"

I felt around the night stand, then down on the carpet. "I think it's right here," he told me. His shackled hand twisted so that the finger could point downward. The key had fallen against the pillow. I undid his first wrist, but he did not move his arm from its overhead position. Because of how he watched me, somewhat amused, as if I were the one exposing myself to such humiliation, I couldn't make myself lean over his chest to undo the second wrist. I walked around to the other side of the huge bed and leaned across the emptiness of a phantom body.

He sat up and sighed contentedly. He didn't bother to rub his wrists. There were no red streaks or signs of wear on them.

"Your hotel is very dangerous. I'm lucky nothing bad happened," he said. "This could have been a lot worse, and then what? Thank you, by the way, for coming to the rescue. A lawsuit? Come here, let me show you."

He stood up to offer me his seat on the bed. I sat down. This was the first time I had sat on any of the beds. For moments longer than I must have been aware of, I dreamed of spreading myself upon it and falling asleep. When I glanced up, Mr. Smith was going through his wallet.

"I wonder what those black eyes of yours would look like . . ." He paused, although it would be misleading to say his voice hesitated. He was not the type of man to hesitate. He let the sentence fade out quite as a singer might dial down his final notes. "I would call them luminescent."

By now I think he knew his important role as my English teacher.

"Fluorescent?"

Each word pulled me closer. From his wallet he removed a five and several singles and reached down to tuck them under my belt. He peered at my crotch. He pulled out another dollar bill and slid it between the buttons of my shirt. I'm afraid I must have disappointed him. For many months every pretty woman, every old beggar on the sidewalk, every dying widow was an object of my desire. Yet here I was, no longer a man I could distinguish from any other. Like my name I was thousands of others, thousands upon thousands. In the end I was Tesfai, nothing at all, and it would take more than this to have the life breathed into me. The bills he removed would find a good home. I would hide them from my nephew and save them for the wife and children who were everything to me and nothing.