Tag Archives: William Cass

Up in Smoke

By William Cass

Rosa felt flattered and appreciative when Jenny invited her to join a few other housekeepers and resort staff for a TGIF. She’d only been working there a couple of weeks and hadn’t yet made any friends. The truth was Rosa had no one she was close to outside of work either; she passed this off as due to her being overweight, acne-scarred, and the shy, reserved nature that had been a restraint for her for as long as she could remember. 

Their group met at an outdoor bar on the boardwalk not far from the resort and included three other housekeepers, a grounds guy, and a well-built bellhop. They’d each changed out of their work uniforms and were all in their early to mid-twenties. They sat at a table away from the Calypso band playing in a corner, ordered Happy Hour drinks and appetizers, and conversed over the sound of the music and the soft tumble of waves beyond the boardwalk. It was early spring, pleasantly cool, and as the late afternoon fell, the sky took on the color of a bruise. 

Rosa was last to arrive. Jenny gestured her over to the empty seat next to her, made introductions, then engaged her in conversation. Jenny was twenty-four, two years older than Rosa, and had been working at the resort since shortly after she graduated high school, had a baby girl and got married. She told Rosa she had taken sporadic online courses through a technical college but was having a hard time finding meaningful time for that. 

Rosa asked, “What does your husband do?” 

Jenny’s lips pursed and she rolled her eyes. “Warehouse security guard. Overnight shift.” 

“How do you handle things with your daughter?” 

“Well, he mostly sleeps while she’s at school and I’m at work, then takes care of her until I get back. We have dinner, and he catches another quick nap before he heads to the warehouse.” She shrugged, “We manage, How about you?” 

“I need a favor,” she said.

Rosa mimicked her shrug. “I live with my grandfather. He and my grandmother raised me before she died when I was in high school. Now I kind of care for him…he’s pretty frail, forgetful.” She smiled, “I call him ‘mi abuelito’.” 

Jenny nodded. “That’s nice. Then you probably can’t stay too long this evening, either.” 

Rosa shook her head. 

Phillip, the bellhop, raised his glass and called for a toast. Rosa regarded his tanned skin, his flop of bleach-blonde hair, his self-assured surfer vibe; in spite of the stereotype, she felt a tickle of attraction. He toasted Happy Hours, he toasted poorly paid workers everywhere, he toasted beauty. As he uttered those last words, he gestured at the setting around them, the ocean, the sky, the music, but when he finished, his eyes rested on Jenny. 

 Jenny began joining Rosa often for lunch in the staff room, which Rosa also appreciated. Unlike most pretty girls she’d known, Jenny didn’t appear smug or aloof, and Rosa didn’t mind that Jenny did most of the talking while they ate. Rosa learned that Jenny’s marriage had been one born mostly of obligation, that her husband’s name was Carl and her daughter was Audrey, and that the little girl loved glitter, ponies, the color pink, and preferred dressing in tutus and plastic tiaras. When she spoke about Audrey, Jenny’s eyes softened as much as they went dull when the talk turned to Carl. He wasn’t a bad guy, Jenny told Rosa, just kind of a doofus; a high school jock gone to seed. He worked weekends, and she didn’t, so with their schedules, they saw little of each other. Jenny gave a kind of smirk when she said that was fine with her. Rosa watched her grow silent afterward, gazing at something, it seemed, on the opposite wall. 

The two of them had the same shifts during the week, so when Jenny told her their car had broken down and would take several days to be repaired, Rosa offered to pick her up and drop her off until it was ready. Their apartment was in a low, cinder-block building on a busy street in a rundown section of town. When she arrived that first morning, Rosa knocked on an open door with a tattered screen, and a man’s voice called for her to come in. Rosa entered a small living room that was separated from an equally cramped kitchen by a Formica table and chairs. Carl stood at the kitchen counter arranging items in a lunch box that had a unicorn on its lid. He was a big man with a soft belly and prematurely thinning hair, but kind eyes. 

He gave her a sheepish grin and said, “Jen will be right out, sit if you want.” 

“Jenny would simply call Rosa’s name softly”

Rosa lowered herself into a chair across the table from Audrey who didn’t look up from the coloring book she was scribbling in. Both rooms were cluttered with toys, piles of laundry, dishes, and strewn papers. A television played an animated children’s program against one wall of the living room. The smell of fried bacon and toasted waffles lingered in the air; a partially eaten plate of both was pushed aside next to Audrey, a puddle of syrup ringing its edge. A red ribbon perched next to the crooked tiara on her curly head.

During the next few moments, Rosa watched Carl write what appeared to a note with a heart at the bottom and fold it into the lunch box before closing the lid. Then Jenny burst into the room buttoning her uniform top. She quickly gathered her purse and pecked Audrey’s cheek. 

“Hey, there,” she said to Rosa. “We better go or we’ll be late.”

As Rosa followed her to the door, Carl called, “See you later. Love you, babe.” 

“You, too,” Jenny muttered, pushing through the door, the tear in it flapping behind her. 

They each had different morning and afternoon breaks, and Rosa often saw Jenny spending hers down behind the resort’s dumpsters smoking cigarettes with Phillip; sometimes another staff member or two was with them. When the two of them were alone, they sat close together on a makeshift bench there. Rosa felt her eyebrows knit the first time she saw them exchange a quick kiss when they parted. Each time that happened afterward, she stood very still and tried to chase away thoughts of crooked tiaras, love notes in unicorn lunch boxes, and farewell calls of endearment. 

At the TGIF’s that continued every month or so, Rosa only saw Jenny and Phillip chance occasional furtive glances. But on the one occasion that a group of them met on a lark later at a club, she did see them push their way into the crowd on the dance floor during a slow song and stroke each other’s backs while they moved closer together. Jenny’s eyes met hers through the throng, and Rosa looked quickly away. When she glanced back, Jenny’s eyes remained on Rosa’s, and she did not attempt to hide the fingertips that continued to caress Phillip’s back. 

So, Rosa was startled, but not entirely surprised, when Jenny appeared beside her cart in an upstairs hallway during one of her breaks shortly afterward cradling a set of clean sheets and pillowcases. Jenny fixed her with a gaze that held a combination of things, yearning, and determination among them. 

“I need a favor,” she said. “I need to use one of your rooms. Just for a little bit, but I need you to keep an eye out for the supervisor. Knock if she comes by.” 

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Rosa felt herself blinking, but Jenny’s gaze remained steady and unyielding until she said, “I checked the registry, and there’s no one in 402. We’ll change the bed when we’re done.” 

Rosa watched her march quickly down to the end of the hall and nod into the stairwell there. Phillip came out of its cavity, waited while Jenny used her pass key to open the guest room door closest to them, then followed her inside it. Rosa winced as the door clicked quietly behind them. She set the towel she was holding on top of the cart and didn’t reach down to pick it up when it fell to the floor. It was early afternoon, the hours between the end of guest check out and the beginning of check-in, so no one else was around. The only sounds were the screech of seagulls outside mingling with laughter and splashing from the pool four stories below. 

At home, Rosa’s grandfather had begun to fade further. Even though she measured his meds out into clearly labeled sections in a plastic dispenser, he often forgot to take them when she wasn’t there. Rosa started calling him during her breaks and at lunch to remind him and to check upon him. When she got home to their bungalow, he was often still dressed in his pajamas sitting where she’d left him that morning and staring at the same channel on the television that was usually muted. She tried getting him outside for some exercise before dinner, but he could barely make it to the end of their block with his walker. She brought out old photo albums and flipped through the pages with him to jog his memory, but he sometimes struggled to even recognize his wife. Rosa lingered over the photographs of her grandparents alone together in which they always held hands, even while blowing out the candles on the cake she’d baked them for their forty-eighth anniversary just before her grandmother’s death. 

The brief afternoon trysts between Jenny and Phillip continued at work every week or two. But unlike the first time, Jenny would simply call Rosa’s name softly from the end of the hall, and when their eyes met, gesture with her head towards the guest room in front of her. Rosa gave no acknowledgment, but a moment later, Jenny would juggle the change of bedding in her arms, make the same gesture into the stairwell, and Phillip would appear and follow her into the room. He never glanced Rosa’s way, and Rosa always made certain to leave her cart in the hallway, but not be there herself when they dropped bedding into its dirty-laundry sack and returned to the stairwell. 

Rosa normally had her grandfather sponge-bathed, diapered, and in bed by eight each night. She usually channel-surfed on the television afterward but began spending time on her laptop looking at online dating websites. She felt a sheepish excitement as she did. She concentrated on those that advertised matching potential couples by personality and valued characteristics. It took her nearly a month to gather the nerve to join one. She kept her personal description brief, using words and phrases like, “Loyal, enjoys simple things, quiet, and giving.” When prompted to describe the sorts of traits she was looking for in a match, she used similar descriptions, but included, “Integrity, honesty, and faithful.” She posted only three photos, all profiles in shadows from the waist up which she’d staged awkwardly with the self-timer on her grandmother’s old camera. Rosa hesitated for a long time, her finger poised over, “Enter,” on the keyboard, before finally blowing out a breath and finalizing her membership on the site. 

As soon as she did, her grandfather groaned from his bedroom. She hurried into the room and knew immediately by the smell that he’d soiled himself. He stayed asleep while she cleaned him up and changed his diaper. Her eyes widened when she returned to her laptop because a flashing icon on it indicated that she already had her first potential match. Her heart hammered as she skimmed through his profile and photos. He was a few years older than her, appeared a bit overweight, too, and his personal descriptions seemed to be reasonably close to her own: nothing to dissuade her from pursuing the match. 

“Silently, Rosa set the bag of trash down…”

Rosa looked at the framed black-and-white photo of her grandparents on the desk next to the laptop. In it, they were about her age, newlyweds, and had just immigrated to the United States from Cuba. They’d grown up there in the same village and had been childhood sweethearts. A sudden flush spread through her. Rosa shook her head, looked back to the laptop where her photo smiled back at her in a blouse Jenny had told her was, “Slimming,” and with a couple of quick taps, deleted her membership on the dating site. She closed the lid, sat back in the hard chair, and listened to her grandfather’s soft snores from the next room. 

Several mornings later, she carried her cart’s full plastic bag of trash to the dumpsters. She smelled cigarette smoke as she approached them and stopped still in her tracks when she heard Jenny’s voice from the other side say, “You mean Rosa? Are you kidding me? We’ve got nothing to worry about there.” 

Phillip’s voice followed. “How can you be so sure?” 

“All that cow cares about is fitting in somewhere,” Jenny said. “We keep asking her to a TG every now and then, and we’re good as gold.” 

Rosa heard Phillip guffaw, then two clouds of exhaled smoke rose above the dumpsters. She felt her throat tighten and burning behind her eyes. Children shouted happily to one another in the nearby pool, and dishes clattered into a sink in the restaurant’s kitchen a handful of yards away. Silently, Rosa set the bag of trash down in front of the dumpsters and somehow found her way back to where she’d left her cart. 

Rosa didn’t sleep much that night. For a long time, she just lay thinking, vaguely aware of her grandfather’s snores and the occasional vehicle passing in the street. She allowed her feelings to tumble over themselves. She thought about her loneliness and what her life would be like when her grandfather was gone. She thought about how safe and cared for her grandparents had always made her feel. She thought about Jenny’s gaze beside her cart before the first tryst with Phillip and realized the look in her eyes held something beyond yearning and determination: it held to scorn. Rosa felt her eyes narrow, and a small snort escaped her. An image of cigarette smoke drifting over the dumpster kept invading her attempts to quiet her mind. She finally dozed briefly as the first birds began tittering, woke up at full dawn, and immediately called in sick at the resort. 

“Shouldn’t you be at work?”

She lingered over breakfast with her grandfather, then took him for a long walk in his wheelchair through their neighborhood with her jaw set hard. She eventually got him settled in his recliner in front of the television at about nine and drove off. She’d waited until then to be sure that Audrey would be at school. When she got to their apartment, she turned off the engine and sat staring at their screen door for a long time before heaving another snort, climbing out, and knocking on it. 

Rosa rubbed her damp palms together as she waited. It took three more knocks and before Carl emerged rubbing sleep from his eyes on the other side of the torn screen. He wore plaid sleeping pants with a ratty T-shirt that rode up over his stomach. They regarded each other until his eyebrows knit into a frown. 

He asked, “Shouldn’t you be at work?” 

Rosa cleared her throat. “There’s something I need to tell you.” The same breakfast smells came from inside. “Something you need to know.” 

She watched him rub his disheveled hair, his frown deepening. “All right,” he said. “Tell me.” 

William Cass has had over 200 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as J Journal, December, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. He was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press. He received three Pushcart nominations and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. His short story collection, Something Like Hope & Other Stories, is scheduled for release by Wising Up Press in late 2020.