Fiction: The Tired Man
By Craig Rodgers
The hotelier waits. He stands behind a bare desk with a face emptied of agency. His suit is cut from a dull cloth thick and old. A tag pinned to his breast reads VERNE.
Somewhere in some other room music plays. Piano, clarinet. A jazzy song from another age. The textured journey of a record needle on its way.
A door to the world opens and a man enters this place. The hotelier’s face turns toward this man and it changes, imbued with a new animation. He speaks his hello and so does the man and a moment passes. Then.
“I could use a room.”
“We have rooms.”
“Can I owe you? I’ve been walking for hours. They’ve got all the bridges locked up. I couldn’t guess when I last saw my wallet.”
The hotelier waves a hand.
“We have room. It’d be sin to turn away those who seek shelter.”
“Man, you’re saving my life. I haven’t had a moment’s rest since the fires started.”
The hotelier says he’ll get the room set up, it’ll be ready shortly. He says they’re short on staff on account of everything. He says feel free to wait in the bar. The lights flicker and they right themselves again. The hotelier smiles. He points.
“Right through there.”
The barroom is lit with light yellow and thick. A bar cut from forest centuries gone runs the length of the room. Old plank floors warped by years call out the trespass of each step. A man sits at a table with a bottle and a tumbler. The copper coat of his suit hangs from the back of his chair. The music is louder here, jaunty and ancient. The tired man points at the glass.
“Is there another one of those?”
The man at the table gestures with his tumbler to a tray of glassware on the bar.
“Free to all in these trying times.”
The tired man takes up a glass from the tray.
“May as well get you a bottle. No sense in saving it now.”
The tired man pauses and turns and turns again. The bar back is lined with glass of blue and silver and gold and more. Cold light touches all without seeping into the yellow room. He steps past table and bar and he retrieves something glass and square caked in dust at the edge of light. If ever there was a label it is long since lost to time.
The man at the table nods his approval. He says sit, he says please. He pours his glass full and huffs into the room and throws back the drink in hard gulps. He exhales long and slow as he sets down his tumbler.
“You staying long?”
The tired man sits. He pulls a cork and pours and sips and sets down his glass.
“I just need to rest a bit. The roads are all jammed up. Every which way.”
The man at the table makes a noise like a word and empties the dregs from his tumbler.
“What about you?” says the tired man.
“What about me?”
“Are you a guest? Are you stuck on the mountain?”
The man waves a hand and he pours drink and he sits. He looks into the glass before him as he speaks.
“This thing. Man.”
A moment goes by, and another. Then. He says he is the groundskeeper. He says he runs the people who keep the grounds. But there is no one left to run and no more grounds to keep. He pours his glass full. He points to the tired man’s glass with its sip gone and adds a splash on top. The lights go out and come back and the tired man looks around. A sign reads NO SMOKING and another lists bar hours.
“What time is it?” The groundskeeper gives a minor head shake. He points with his drink hand at the sign.
“Sometimes. On bad days.”
“Is today a bad one?”
“It’s not great.”
The groundskeeper laughs. He says can I have one and the tired man says there’s a sign and the groundskeeper says well. He says there’s a war on. He says there is a fire. He gulps from his drink and goes on.
“The town I grew up in, there was a pet fee. Every year. What for? I don’t know. To have a pet. My whole life I always wanted a dog, but that pet fee, well, I figured why? It’s not my dog. I’m paying somebody for the privilege, so you say to me there’s a sign and I say there’s a fire and that’s its own kind of sign. We come out of darkness and we go back in the dark forever and in our brief moment in the light I’ve gotta beg a man to let me have a puppy? I’ve gotta give him a tribute for permission? Where is the accounting for all the dogs I didn’t get? Does that man owe me? So smoke. Drink. Don’t ask now. There’s a fire about.”
The tired man smokes and the groundskeeper smokes and the groundskeeper exhales and smacks his lips. He makes a hmm noise. He says he hasn’t smoked in years. He coughs. The tired man speaks.
“I should be getting up to my room.”
The groundskeeper coughs again. He tips his bottle over the tired man’s glass.
“You have to finish your drink. The room will be there.”
“I need to rest.”
“This is no place for that.”
“I’m not the only guest.”
“Not by half. There’s a couple dipshits, a couple wastrels. We got a painter upstairs, says he killed his friend.”
The groundskeeper shrugs.
“You know how it is. A fire brings in all kinds. But nobody’s resting. The fire’s coming too. Nothing’s changing that mind.”
The lights flicker and steady. The groundskeeper speaks a quiet word and drinks his drink. The tired man sips and sips again. He looks around to the entryway.
“Where’s the concierge?”
“My room should be ready by now.”
The groundskeeper stares.
“Buddy. Drink your drink.”
The tired man drinks and the groundskeeper gulps. The lights above buzz and pop and go dark and come back. Each man stubs his cigarette and each man lights a next. A song becomes another, becomes another. Somewhere a siren howls and quiets. They talk of the fire and they are talking of it still when a newcomer steps into the room. The tired man turns. The groundskeeper raises his tumbler.
“Ah, the painter.”
The painter holds up a hand and gives a nod. He takes a single step and pauses. He looks about the room as if only now seeing where he is. The groundskeeper points at the tray of glassware.
“Get you one.”
The painter does. He sits at the table and the groundskeeper pours for each man.
“So,” says the groundskeeper. “We were talking.”
“I just want to sleep.”
“I was telling my sleepy friend here about your situation.”
The painter turns wary eyes in turn to each man. He does not touch his drink.
“I don’t have a situation.”
“You say that now. When you wandered in you were going on about your friend.”
“I need to get to my room.”
“Drink your drink. I wanna hear more about his friend.”
“That was a misunderstanding.”
“Must’ve been a bad one if you killed him over it.”
“I fucking what?”
“I said he might get killed. He might get hurt. I didn’t say anything about me. He was fine when I talked to him.”
“That’s not what you said.”
The groundskeeper gulps his drink and huffs and sets the tumbler down.
“If I remember right, you said he might get killed. Because of you.”
The painter looks at his glass. he touches it but does not pick it up.
“It doesn’t matter now. The fire fixed it.”
The groundskeeper snorts.
“Fixed it for you or fixed it for him?”
The tired man speaks.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“If he killed his friend. If he got his friend killed. It doesn’t matter to his friend, because he’s dead. It doesn’t matter to you because you’re just some guy in a bar, you don’t give two shits about either of them. It might matter to him, but he’s not gonna say so to you so it all evens out. It doesn’t matter to me because the only thing I want is to go to my room, lie down, and close my eyes. And I don’t have to ask for your blessing, and I don’t have to pay a fee, and I don’t have to drink my fucking drink.”
The tired man grips his glass and drinks back the entirety of its contents. The lights flutter and hum and he stands and he says I’ve had enough, and he says goodnight, and he makes his way from the barroom, stumbling and straightening and moving along.
The hotelier is waiting. He animates from that deep stillness with a hint of smile.
He turns without more and moves along a hall at his back. The tired man follows in a lurching step, pausing, moving, leaning a shoulder into a wall.
The hotelier goes on.
“I can’t keep up.”
The hotelier rounds a corner at the hallway’s end, and the tired man is following, and he is calling out, but when he reaches the turn he is there alone. A song still plays somewhere at his back, and ahead there is a door standing open. The tired man moves on, and he enters, and it is a humble room furnished in wood, rustic and old. He lowers himself onto a thin mattress and pulls a sheet across his form. Somewhere there is a hum and then a rising buzz and there is a pop and the room falls into a darkness complete, and there in the infinite black of that moment the tired man closes his eyes.
Craig Rodgers is the name on several books ghostwritten by a gaggle of long dead Victorian spirits.