You are what you pretend to be, so be careful what you pretend to be.
– Kurt Vonnegut, “Mother Night”
Lisa and I were playing gin rummy in our makeshift fort when we heard the phone ring. It was approaching 100 degrees outside and the municipal swimming pool was closed for the afternoon because of a tornado watch. The screened-in porch offered little reprieve from the heat, so we’d stretched three sheets over the rickety furniture and placed a fan at each end, the billowing cotton percale forming a welcome tunnel of cool air.
“Can somebody get the phone? I’m trying to sleep,” Mom yelled from her bedroom sanctuary, the only room in our old house with an air conditioner. She’d been bartending nights at the local bowling alley and slept late most mornings, the aging window appliance cranked until she could see her breath. “What are you girls doing inside, anyway?” We sighed in unison when we heard the question, knowing it was just a matter of time before she stormed downstairs and chased us outdoors.
“How does she even know we’re in the house?” I whispered.
“Can one of you please answer the damn phone?” Mom cried. I took a swig of my root beer and Lisa shuffled the cards. The phone rang two more times and I heard Mom snarl into the receiver halfway through the next ring. We were wrapping up another hand of rummy when her head poked through the south end of the fort.
“Hey! Do you girls want to make some money working at the Palazzo Motel this summer? Karla needs some help with housekeeping. She’ll pay you three dollars an hour if you can start tomorrow.”
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” I answered for both of us. “When do we get paid?”
The following day I joined the day laborers at the Palazzo, a run-down motel rife with mildew and host to a number of peculiar odors. Like feet, and body odor, and forgotten washrags. With its 20-odd rooms it was similar to a Motel 6, right down to the curiously striped sheets and matted shag carpet. Karla was an old bartending friend of my mother, and she and her husband were the owners. We’d be working with Karla’s daughter Arial, a big-boned redhead.
Ariel was a year younger than me and already worked weekends at the motel. She drove without a learner’s permit and smoked her mother’s cigarettes. Most summers I flopped at her house for days on end, spending the evenings in a state of perpetual slumber-party bliss: facial masks and permanents, experiments with myriad bleaching agents and dyes, and makeovers during which I slathered layers of foundation over her fine cloak of freckles. Best yet, Arial’s family always had types of food we didn’t have at our house: potato chips, sugared cereal in boxes instead of bags, and chili made with all meat and no beans. No beans! I wasn’t starving at home by any stretch of the imagination, but a girl can get tired of government cheese and Steak-Ums.
The real perks of the Palazzo Motel were yet to be learned (I will disclose them here so you might ascertain the Palazzo’s larger role in our lives). Very soon (far, far too soon) Arial began “renting” rooms for partying. These parties would commence in the main house where her family lived, spilling over into adjoining motel rooms and the reception area. Without fail, we’d binge-drink nasty concoctions of booze stolen from Arial’s parents’ liquor cabinet, all the while stuffing ourselves with pizza and chips until our backs hurt and our lips were greasy. Ultimately, and often at dawn, the whole lot of us ended up piling into the motel lobby’s bathroom stalls; moaning, crying, and shitting while simultaneously puking into pants we’d recently rushed to our ankles. And you know who got to clean up in the morning . . .
I arrived for my first shift with a face full of makeup and a baggy shirt hiding what I had hoped were developing breasts. But they’d proven, thus far, to be the non-developing kind. I was just starting to experiment with cosmetics, beginning each day with the amateurish application of five shades of purple eye shadow (yes, five!) and chalky orange rouge. With Lisa’s guidance I added blue mascara and eyeliner. She was already testing the platinum hues: skillfully frosted and flirting at age 13. We were in the same grade even though I was ten months younger (Mom wanted us out of the house at the same time so I started kindergarten when I was four) and lucky (lucky!) Lisa had sprouted huge boobs by our sixth-grade year (Arial and I were both late bloomers, damned to wear stretchy pastel training bras well into high school).
“Okay girls, I want you to follow Beatrice around the motel and she’ll show you the ropes,” Karla said, smiling and waving us over to a round woman sipping coffee from a tiny Styrofoam cup. Beatrice was short and wide, and every visible inch of her body was encased in folds of soft pink flesh. To be blunt, she was F. A. T. fat. We had to follow her around for an entire weekend, gutter-bound preteens who could focus on nothing beyond the single burning question: How does this woman wipe?
You know what housekeepers do; they clean up the mess left by people who know they don’t have to clean up their mess. We did this while clouds of Lysol poisoned our lungs and burned our eyes, and did only what was mandatory before swooning in front of The Young and the Restless, desperate to find out what happened to Angie and Jesse after they’d kidnapped their infant son from his adopted parents and run off to Sea City . . .
“Hey, Arial. Do you think these sheets are clean?” I heard Lisa ask on our third day.
“Yeah. If it doesn’t look like they slept on them just pull the comforter up,” Arial instructed.
“What about the toilet? I don’t think anyone used this toilet,” I said.
“Just get rid of any hair and put the band on. It doesn’t really matter.” Arial was steadfast in her approach to cleanliness. She tossed me a pile of paper bands imprinted with SANITIZED FOR YOUR PROTECTION. I gave the toilet a quick swipe and slipped the paper lie into place.
“Oh my god! Come here, guys! Hurry!” Lisa yelled this at least once per shift. She’d gather us together in rooms where she’d found some questionable (or obvious) body fluid. We’d waste at least fifteen minutes pointing and giggling, trying unsuccessfully to make one another touch it. And yet, there was one thing worse than those mystery liquids, one thing I didn’t care to encounter while strapping paper bands on toilets, and that was opening a door and finding the beast with two backs. Or, more politely, naked people. Oh, call it what you want; screwing, fucking, bumping uglies or making babies, I was twelve years old and horrified. Horrified! Thank God it only happened once. The look on their faces was reason enough to knock until my knuckles bled. Every room. Every shift. Every time. Even if it was two hours post-checkout.
After a couple of weeks on the job I began taking advantage of the break room concessions, giving special devotion to Twin Bing candy bars and coffee I’d thickened with powdered creamer. Since employees could buy candy bars for a fraction of the retail price (better yet, they were free when Arial was in charge), I was always first in line for a sugar high. Drinking sugary coffee was far more enjoyable than my mom catching me eating sugar straight out of the sugar bowl . . . again.
Speaking of Mom, she, too, worked a few shifts at the Palazzo. All through the summer of ’81 and the winters of ’82 and ’83-we girls loved when the workday was over and we were allowed to hang out with Mom and Karla. Lisa, Arial, and I spent countless afternoons sipping kid-sized Tequila Sunrises and lighting their cigarettes, taking turns emptying the mounds of ashes collecting in their tiny amber ashtrays.