At the Maritime Hotel
At the Maritime hotel, guests are long past.
The place is a wreck. No one goes there, never mind pays a visit. By the time we arrive, reception has caved-in—the ceiling dipping at a point, pendulous over the former desk. All the chandeliers have shattered—so many discarded earrings. Nobody rides the elevator, counting the floors off anxiously, or listens for the ping when the doors open. Nobody walks the corridors that used to be lined with shoes.
The hotel is itself a kicked-off overshoe.
Now, as we wander, we skirt patches of wilderness. Sands blows in off the beach, and you might easily mistake it for desert overrunning the beautiful sea-green carpet, as though it lapped the edges of an oasis. Crabs scuttle there sometimes. Sea birds nest in the old turrets. Rats scavenge in the shadows of caryatids, as though the place had become the underside to a boardwalk.
Now, as we navigate the corridors, years since the first time, it feels different. We are post-marriage, post-adultery, post-lust, post-nostalgia.
We walk gingerly up the broken-down staircase, watching for gaps, free falls. You take my hand as we go, gothic silhouettes slipping between the buttresses of light that break through the tattered ceiling.
We search out our old room in the near dark. This is the great challenge of our visit, akin to remembering how it was, where we stood back before we became old, old, old. The corridors used to blaze with lamp light, ornate against red wallpaper, gold trim, but now everything is washed gray by dusk, age, dis-use. I rub the smudged front of our door clean with my jacket sleeve—number 256.
No key this time, just a shove to break the lock. The wood is rotten, riddled. Then, our former suite, transformed by star light, the fire speck of a passing jet above. A whole wall has collapsed on one side, opening up the view we used to pay for.
“Couldn’t have asked for better,” you say, exultant, bathing your face in the odd sea-light of memory. You shimmer and sway with the motion of a room set on stilts.
“Look at that for plush,” I say, pointing to a tapestry of green-black mold consuming the bathroom wall.
You chuckle at that, and then I lay you down gently on the yellow sheets of the unmade bed.
“As though it were yesterday,” you say, wiping back a strand of gray-white hair.
Meeting you again by chance so late in life seemed impossible, and then almost pointless. Bumping shoulders in our co-op supermarket, I hardly recognized you at first, but then, when your face finally came into focus, I felt the room shift, as though a whole rush of years had suddenly caught up on me. I told myself, if time could happen to you, to that face, it had surely happened to everything else. Here I was, at last, located properly in my run of years. As I shook your hand, and your gaze lit on me, I saw that your eyes still carried their old light.
Once, a long time ago, slim and gauche, checking in, we looked around in wonder at our last-minute booking, whistling at the fancy cornices, the plump, icing sugar bed, thinking this place seemed too immaculate for the likes of us.
But now, with our mottled skin, our age spots, our sagging structures, we’re well matched at last: we’ve found a home away from home.
Tonight, we will be very gentle, respecting the fragility of the hotel, the second-floor structure, our old bones and memories, and in the morning it will be as though we’ve just checked in for the first time, the ocean lullaby just the same as usual, the whole weekend still waiting to be spent.
The Skating Bear of Astrakhan
Where did they find him, this bear?
Was he bred in a cage or found in the wild, roaming the forest, innocent and fierce?
Or was that his mother’s mother?
Either way he had been skating for too long, skating on all fours, crazy-splayed, skating upright, veering off but capable of a pirouette, liable to slip but trained to leap through hoops, flailing but capable of a big finish tumble.
Nights, cage-bound and pawing dirt with close-clipped nails this freak of physics, biology, society, nurses a kill-rage like an unscratchable wasp sting. This bear, onstage, Karla, offstage nameless, grizzles like an infant in his sleep, an old dream of chasing prey rising atavistically to slice open the belly of ringside theatrics.
Artur, the night caretaker, rolling flimsy cigarettes across the late shift, occasionally looks up after midnight to meet a pair of glittering amber eyes best viewed from the other side of the bars of a cage.
It happened on a frozen lake near Astrakhan. The touring company stopped awhile on the last lap of the backwater round of its steppe-wide tour. The company, a hybrid entity of acrobat buffoons and serious artistes, had a half-affection for the small towns, the sleepy mist-morning country, the smoking horizons, the covetous trees.
The late evening fête was almost done—there was still the premonition of barbecue in the air, there was still the frost tang of winter nuzzling the corpses of leaves on the fringes of what amounted to a glorified pond. The skating ringmaster wore a ludicrous harlequin coat. He led Karla by the throat, releasing and extending his leash to accommodate tricks and maneuvers. The metal chain was a line drawn between them—their act was as much a feat of measuring how close they skated to each other as how tight a rein Karla was allowed at any moment.
The small town kids shrieked when the bear’s bulk skated too near, half in wonder at how his height was held upright and half in giddiness at his speed. There was little real fear in their hysteria—Karla looked cage-tamed, his fur molting in patches, his teeth rotting. He looked like the sort of bear left in the attic after a childhood purge.
For a while, Karla and the ringmaster swooped past according to the limits of the chain. The townsfolk called out encouragements from time to time. Old ladies clapped along to the sound of the violin, the clatter of the tambourine. Children tumbled in the snow, aping the routines in miniature.
Soon, it seemed as though every variation of a spin and flourish had been attempted—only one old lady continued to clap, her eyes closed, her whispers following the steppe-song in an undertone.
Soon, Karla and the ringmaster slowed, tired by their act. Their gestures became less slick. It might have been some odd variation in the fading light—the sun was setting—but during a daring repetition of his trademark figure-eight the ringmaster slipped and fell, mid-swerve, onto one knee. The chain snagged momentarily, flexed taut, then snapped, sending him spinning into contest-worthy swoops, while freed, Karla stood startled for a moment, before collapsing in slow stages back into his four-legged aspect.
Many spoke afterwards about how there was no pause to consider, load a rifle, shout a warning, breathe, for as swift as a reverse metamorphosis, as soon as Karla fell back into his earthly shape, he bounded forward, immediately ferocious.
This bear, whoever he had been once, was particular now, and ran towards the man whose name he had never captured, but who he knew as the shadow who had curbed him with tiresome antics from cub-hood, a man he knew best by associations: a bowl, a bell, a gnarled and bloody stick.
David Mohan has been published in PANK, Necessary Fiction, Atticus Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Penn Review, The Seneca Review and The Chattahoochee Review. He has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize.