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Hotel/Tests by Estelle Gilson



Hotel

She has walked all day.

The hotel shimmers in a hillside garden by the sea. Its low, pink buildings are surrounded by dark green, satin-leafed hedges studded with buttons in color-wheel colors.

They had promised her a room but now there is none. From the pink lobby with its pink reception desk, they send her to the lounge. The lounge is a long narrow room with French windows. No one else is in it. From a south window she can see the surface of the dark and pitted cliffs below. She watches the sea moving in and out between them, lapping at their bases in long tongues with the rhythm of a breathing animal.

When she turns away she is very tired.

By now, the lounge's sconces are ablaze and shadows line its walls. But no one has come in. She longs to lie down. At the far end of the room she sees a pink and green couch. When she reaches it, she finds the green is money. Five- and ten-dollar bills folded lengthwise and then again in wide Vs like a barber's open razor.

She doesn't want the money. But the empty silence persists. And soon she is gathering bills and stuffing them into her clothes.

But now she cannot sleep.

There is no one in the lobby--its pink reception desk is bare and the pink cubicles behind it empty--and it reeks of bitter cleanliness. Silently, she creeps down corridors and opens doors. Through narrow cracks she peers into rooms. Here, paisley-pillows and yellow lamps exude the sour smells of love.

Outside on the lawn the night is tightly black, the stars large and precise. Nothing twinkles or hides itself from her. For once the constellations are revealed, diagrammatic and discreet.

She lies down on the grass to watch with the others, the people who have rooms. In the dark, the handsomest of them kisses her, but turns away from her tongue.

When she hears a voice, she is too tired to move. .

"Well," the clerk says, "you won't be needing a room now."

She doesn't reply.

"It's day," he explains.

She raises her head.

There is no mistaking the tall gray windowpanes.

The buildings, the hedge and flowers, the cliffs, the sea and sky beyond are flat and colorless.

She nods and starts on her way.



Tests


My task is not insurmountable. Just difficult.. And one I dislike. I am a tester of men. I record their successes and failures. I spend my waking hours devising questions, interpreting answers, filling tiny spaces with tinier symbols. It is mean work.

I have often thought I could spend my time more enjoyably. Yet I have never tried to change my work. Not that I am without ambition. But always, at the instant I think I can do better, I am assailed by doubts--by the feeling I know no more than my subjects. My subjects are ordinary people, loud, bold, animal-stupid, and so filled with certainty, they frighten me. I am afraid that thinking I am not like them, I am precisely what they are--too dumb to know my own dumbness.

This fear is automatic and controlling like a counterweight which keeps an object from rising too high. But unlike an object insensately obeying physical laws, I have been altered by it. Old dreams of soaring, of sailing off into unknown lands now rarely rise to consciousness.

Today I am to test my subjects in the arena--all of them at once. This means I will be watched and tested too and makes me more afraid than ever. No one has told me who my judges are or what my test will be. No one has told me what will happen if I fail. I could easily fail. My subjects obey me and answer my questions because they have always obeyed me and answered my questions. They do not know how little I could control them should they rise against me.

I work in a room that is not my own--at a tall, mahogany desk with a pull-down door. When the door is open, the belly of the desk is revealed. It is filled with smooth, deep nooks, too small for my hands.

The rest of the room is furnished with soft, rounded gray chairs and couches. Its tables are silver, its vases pearly and its flowers large, white and perfumed. The room belongs to two women with dark, cap-like hair who dress in black and walk among their furnishings like ravens in a hueless meadow.

Whenever I enter that room, it is with satisfaction that I want nothing in it. I keep my books to my chest and my eyes on the floor. This time is no exception. Yet before I reach my desk, I know something is different. From the corner of my eye I see the women smoking cigarettes and pacing. Then I feel another presence. When I follow the women's eyes, I see the man. He is standing apart from them, closer to me. He is tall, solidly built, with black hair. I can look at the women or not, as I please, but I turn away from the man.

I try to walk to my desk, but the room air impedes me. It is filled with smoke, perfume, and his breath, which I taste high in my mouth.

I clutch my books tighter. I do not want him. I do not want him to want me. Nothing good can come of wanting.

I have almost reached my desk when he is suddenly behind me. His body presses against mine. His hands cup my breasts. I turn and try to push him away. He holds me tighter. The women's eyes are yellow.

"They will hate me," I say.

"I know," he says.

"I must do my work," I say.

"I know," he says.

"And I'm being tested too."

"Yes," he smiles.



Estelle Gilson is an award-winning writer and translator in New York. Irrealists might be interested in her translations of the stories and novels of Massimo Bontempelli, creator of the term realismo magico, which have introduced this writer to American readers.


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