Leaving the Chesapeake
by Edward M. Belfar
The Chesapeake Hotel, a dusty, brown-brick structure that stood a couple of blocks to the southeast of Baltimore's Penn Station, had a gabled roof, large frosted windows, and few other residents during my month-long stay. Far more common were the whores and their clients—the former skeletal and hollow-eyed, with needle tracks lining their arms and legs; the latter an even more forlorn lot, most seemingly born before God invented dust—who used the rooms by the hour. I had heard that the girls sometimes stole the Viagra from the befuddled old gentlemen and fetched a rather decent price for it on the black market.
My room, with its peeling, pea-green walls illumined only by a bare light bulb on the ceiling, had one window, sans curtain, that, no matter the weather, stubbornly remained one-quarter open, in defiance of all my efforts to force the sash up or down. A thick coating of grime covered the pane. The room had a "queen-sized bed"—a straw pallet and a box spring—that covered most of the floor, and no other furnishings.
Having lived in Europe, I had known Spartan accommodations before but nothing like these. Enjoy your getaway at the Chesapeake. Offering a unique combination of European space constraints and American urban squalor. The dim hallways reeked of mildew, tobacco, soiled linen, and every kind of human secretion and excretion. The building had neither showers nor hot water. One could take a cold bath if he dared to immerse himself in a tub encrusted with orange and black fungus. I scrubbed my body with wet towels instead. The toilets at either end of the hall had signs above them enjoining the user to flush but were perpetually stopped up, leaving one to wonder how. More than once I had defecated in plastic supermarket bags, which I had disposed of in the Dumpster behind the building.
Without radio, television, or computer, I had too much time for rumination and too few ways to divert or console myself. Most of my books I had placed in storage, but I did have with me a 1912 translation of the Discourses of Epictetus that I had picked up at a yard sale for 50 cents. When the heat and humidity made reading impossible, I would turn off the light and try to meditate, to focus on my breathing and filter out the sweat, the smells, the nausea, the chronic pain in my right knee, the tumult in the hall. Rarely did I succeed.
Rarely, too, did I trouble to answer the summons of the pay phone just outside my door. I made few calls, received even fewer, and knew my neighbors only by sight. On occasion, though, the ringing persisted so long as to become a torment and draw me out of my hole, and, invariably, the impatient voice at the other end of the line belonged to my brother Peter.
"What kind of a shithole are you living in, where you don't even have your own phone?" he would bark. "Why don't you get yourself a cell phone?"
"I'm not important enough for a cell phone," I would answer.
Inevitably, either he or I would hang up in exasperation.
One night, though, he called with an invitation: "Listen, April and I are having a party tomorrow night. Why don't you come up to Long Island? It'll do you good. You haven't even seen the new place yet."
"I'd like to, but I have no money. I didn't leave my apartment by choice. They evicted me. I couldn't pay the rent."
"What? What's wrong with you? Why didn't you tell me? I would have helped you out."
"I know that."
From somewhere down the hallway, there came a piercing female shriek: "Everybody know what d-i-c-k mean."
Several bursts of harsh male laughter followed.
"Listen, we'll talk about it tomorrow. I'll buy you an Amtrak ticket."
"I'm working till six tomorrow. And Saturday, too."
"Call in sick. The hell with them. It's not as if they pay you enough to live on. Why don't you look for a job up here? You can stay with us till you get settled. Why are you still in Baltimore anyway? You have nothing there anymore. What are you trying to do to yourself?"
I might have hung up at that point but for the brawny young man with the shaved head and goatee who hovered about me, glowering, edging ever closer, his right hand fidgeting with some change.
"You about done, dude?"
When he repeated the question, more loudly and with more menace in his tone, I turned to him and replied, "I'll be done when I'm done."
"You been on there a long time, dude. It ain't your phone, you know."
"It ain't yours either, dude. And I would finish a lot more quickly if you would leave me alone."
I turned my back to the man, my body tensing as if expecting a blow.
"Order me the ticket," I shouted into the mouthpiece. "I'll see you tomorrow."
I knew that over the course of the weekend my brother would try to prevail upon me to see reason and not return to the Chesapeake and, when reason failed, would try to bludgeon me into submission. Nonetheless, I did not relinquish my room key before I left the next morning for the station, and I did take the precaution of calling out sick from work. Whether the latter would guarantee a job to return to, though, remained an open question. Because I would be calling out on Saturday as well as Friday, I would need a doctor's note.
I sold newspaper subscriptions over the telephone, and I sold them to people who did not want the paper, people who couldn't read, people who couldn't see, to senile shut-ins and children whose parents weren't home. More often than not, I failed to sell enough to augment my salary—the legal minimum, minus "fines" for tardiness or failure to meet weekly or monthly quotas—with a commission.
That I would find myself in such a situation in times of relative prosperity seemed proof to my brother of my perversity—a self-destructive impulse born of a desire to spite him. To me, though, brooding my way through Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey on the Northeast Direct that morning and afternoon, and then through Manhattan, Queens, and the suburbs on a commuter train, my stay at the Chesapeake had come to seem as though preordained.
I had completed my coursework toward my Ph.D. and, too slowly, my comprehensive exams and was trying to flesh out an inchoate idea of basing a dissertation on an ethnographic study of just such a place as the Chesapeake, when the walking corpse that was my marriage keeled over at last. Faced with a divorce and custody fight, I put scholarship aside—the world did not lose much as a result—and went to work. My new employer peddled hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly planners—both paper and software versions; books, videos, and cassettes on managerial techniques, team building, and time and stress management; and mugs, pens, stationery, etc., adorned with pithy sayings guaranteed to motivate and inspire. I put on time management seminars for middle- and upper-level managers, instructing my charges in how to use their planners with maximum efficiency. The wisdom I dispensed encompassed far more than mere tips on multitasking, though. Indeed, I offered an entire philosophy of life, a way of clarifying one's values, missions, goals, and means, and my eager pupils, who prided themselves on their hard-nosed managerial styles, lapped the swill right up. I closed each presentation with the words of William Ernest Henley, later made infamous by Timothy McVeigh: "I am master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul." Eventually, I tired of Henley and began culling inspirational bits from the words of literary and actual villains: Iago, Lady Macbeth, Hitler, Stalin, Charles Manson. Though Harvard Business and Wharton School grads abounded in my audiences, no one ever got the joke.
The job paid well, and though three years of divorce and custody litigation left me buried beneath a landslide of debt, I managed to stay out of bankruptcy court for an additional two-and-a-half years. Unfortunately, by that time, the consumption of large quantities of alcohol had become necessary as a means of getting me through a week of my presentations, each identical to the last but for my specially selected quotation. Driving drunk one night, I hopped the curb and slammed into a tree, cracking a couple of ribs, shattering my right kneecap and tearing the medial meniscus. I needed two operations to put the pieces back together, and, even so, remained a semi-invalid for the better part of a year. Just when I had begun to walk again without a noticeable limp, my masters decided that an employee like me, so unproductive for so long, did not exemplify their values and could have only the most deleterious effects on their mission and goals, and let me go. My income from freelance editing, when available, and telemarketing—a trade I took up when faced with the possibility of becoming a street person or going to jail for nonpayment of child support—did not stretch far enough to pay the bills. In quick succession, there came bankruptcy, eviction, and the Chesapeake, in which environment I became, in one of life's nasty little ironies, a subject rather than a researcher.
Peter met me at the station, clasping me in a bear hug. Burly and slightly bowlegged, with a graying beard and a weathered visage, he had the look of a mariner, though he had never shown much interest in boating, and even at the beach, he preferred the sand to the water. We wound our way slowly in his SUV past stone mansions set far back behind high walls, hedgerows, and pickets of oaks and beeches, Peter narrating the tour in his husky baritone.
"This whole section in here once belonged to the Vanderbilts. That house on the right belonged to a guy named Cliff Roberts. His father had made a fortune mining bauxite in Utah and left him all his money. He settled here, and eventually, he shot himself. The one closer to the road was the caretaker's house. Even the caretaker lived better than we do. I thought about buying it, but it needed too much work. It's been vacant for a long time."
Peter's own house, a colonial, though newer and of more prosaic dimensions than some of the legendary dwellings nearby, nevertheless provided ample comforts: high ceilings from which slowly spinning fans depended, a parquet floor in the dining room, a fireplace with marble mantle piece in the living room, bathrooms—one of which contained a Jacuzzi—larger than my cell at the Chesapeake. A plank deck looked out over a vast yard, in the middle of which lay a fenced-in area that surrounded a doghouse inhabited by a family of ducks. Beyond the property line lay marshland and cattails, and farther on, the Great South Bay.
April, lounging on a beach chair on the deck, kept a wary eye on Adam, a scrawny 9-year-old, who was kicking a soccer ball back and forth with a friend at the far end of the yard. A tall, slender woman, with a scattering of freckles on her cheeks and tawny hair held back from her forehead by pink barrettes. She rose at once when she saw me and greeted me with a kiss, ignoring my shouted warning—she wore hearing aids in both ears—that she ought not to get near me until I had showered and changed. Despite her broad smile and the time she had spent in the sun, she appeared wan and tired, with dark patches beneath her eyes and her skin stretched tautly over her cheekbones.
A moment later, the plate-glass door that led into the den slid open, and a gangly, slouching, sullen-looking adolescent with electric-blue hair stepped out onto the deck and murmured, "Mom, I'm going now. Be back tomorrow afternoon. Bye."
"Hey," growled Peter. "You're uncle's here. Don't you even bother to say hello?"
"Hi, Uncle Bobby," answered the boy, already retreating into the house.
"Where the hell is he off to now?"
"If you took the time to ask him, you would know."
"Last time I saw Eric," I said, "his hair was bright red. Is he going through all the primary colors first?"
"Bad subject," answered Peter.
"Did you ever think," I wondered aloud, "we'd get this old?"
Edward M. Belfar's works have appeared or are forthcoming in The Awakenings Review, The Baltimore Review, Dodobobo, Pennsylvania English, Potpourri, Soundings, Steam Ticket, and The Story Exchange. He lives in Maryland, where he works as an editor and teaches at Prince George's Community College.