In the Night of the Day Before

by Jensen Beach, recommended by Graywolf Press

AN INTRODUCTION BY ETHAN NOSOWSKY

Jensen Beach is a native son of California, but all of the stories in his new collection, Swallowed by the Cold, are set in Sweden. “In the Night of the Day Before” is a bit of an exception, but it has in common with the book’s other stories an unflinching interest in the vast gulf between the events that constitute a life and the narrative we construct from them.

This story has an elegant frame structure that starts with a simple but deft overture: at his retirement party in Stockholm, Martin is flattered that his colleagues have organized an outing in his honor. You learn that he is glad his wife didn’t want to come. Beach has the confidence to bury that assertion without remarking on it, and it resonates in a way that makes you wonder about the state of the marriage. Then Martin’s secretary queues up the Eagles ballad that became a karaoke classic, “Hotel California.” Though lyrics are never quoted, by the time Martin recalls visiting Alcatraz some pages later, you might be humming We are all just prisoners here, of our own device.

In the exquisite flashback that makes up the bulk of this story, Martin drives from Los Angeles to San Francisco at the end of a work trip. Stopping in San Louis Obispo along the way, he encounters a young male prostitute who he brings back to his room. They spend a pleasant night together, but Martin wakes up by himself in the morning, his wallet empty. In San Francisco the next day, he meets a divorcee who tries, unsuccessfully, to seduce him. This time Martin ends up hiding, very much alone, in his hotel room.

You can check out any time you like / but you can never leave, you’ll remember, as the story concludes years later, back at the karaoke bar. But then you wonder: which California hotel is Martin trapped in? Look a little more carefully and you’ll see that there is actually only one hotel in this story.

Ethan Nosowsky
Editor, Graywolf Press

 

In the Night of the Day Before

Martin was in a private room at the Sakura Karaoke Bar with fifteen people who worked for him. “Hotel California” was next on the list. The song’s title blinked on the small television screen. Behind the title, cherry blossoms bloomed in time-lapse. Sandra, his secretary, had made him promise that he’d sing “Hotel California.” Martin was retiring and Sandra had arranged a night out to celebrate. She’d invited Martin’s whole department and they’d all come, which Martin appreciated. Even Lennart, who’d only just started at the Stockholm office, had made it. Martin’s wife, Louise, had not wanted to come and he was happy for that.

Sandra picked the song because Martin had once been to California. That was before he started working for Ericsson. He’d been sent for a training course. The course was in Los Angeles, though the company was located in Silicon Valley. After the course had finished, he stayed in California through the end of the week. He rented a car and drove north from Los Angeles on Highway 1, which everyone at the course told him he should drive. He was excited to visit San Francisco. It was a city he thought he knew well from television. Highway 1 was very beautiful but the driving was slow.

In San Luis Obispo, he met a young man at a bar. The young man said his name was Cesar and spoke with an accent Martin had never heard before. He knew Cesar would ask for money eventually, but Martin was on vacation and certain he deserved this, so he put the thought of money out of his mind and thought instead of Cesar’s tanned face and slender wrists. He had difficulty understanding what Cesar was saying in the loud bar. The bar was on Chorro Street, not far from Mission San Luis Obispo. The broad white walls of the mission were yellow under the streetlights when he and Cesar walked past it to his motel.

From the window of the room, there was a view of Highway 1. Cesar undressed and Martin watched this and also the headlights that flashed in through the gap between the wall and the thick floral-patterned curtains he’d drawn immediately after entering the room.

When it was over, he lay awake and listened to Cesar breathe. Cesar’s chest was smooth except for a small patch of coarse black hair and Martin watched this move with each breath. A vein in Cesar’s neck pulsed steadily. Martin reached out and put his fingertips softly on it. He felt the flutter of the boy’s blood, the rise and fall of his chest.

The next morning, he woke up to an empty bed. He’d expected this. A piece of yellow paper had been ripped out of a brochure for wine tasting on the central coast and lay on top of Martin’s wallet, two of the ripped edges beginning to curl in the heat. On the piece of paper, Cesar had written: “Thanks.” Under this word, he’d drawn a small heart. Martin tossed the paper into the trash can.

It was just before nine. He showered and dressed. Then he made the bed, pulling the top sheet tight across the yellowed bottom sheet and tucking the comforter in between the bed and the wall. The pillows were uneven lumps. He looked at the bed and knew that the housekeeper would have to undo his work, but making the bed was a habit he could not break. He checked out early.

Over a cup of coffee from a McDonald’s he watched two pigeons fight over a hamburger wrapper in the parking lot. Then he continued driving north, but now along 101. He passed through cities with names like Atascadero and Paso Robles. He pronounced the name of each city aloud as he passed. He didn’t know whether he was saying the words correctly. By that afternoon, he was in San Francisco. He checked in to the Holiday Inn on Van Ness, and requested a room on the top floor. From his room, he could see the bay and the blinking red lights on the towers of the Bay Bridge, which he mistakenly assumed was the Golden Gate.

He ate dinner at the restaurant bar. The halibut was dry. The bartender claimed it was caught that afternoon, but Martin didn’t believe this. He avoided looking at the other guests.

In the morning, he took the ferry to Alcatraz. On board, he bought a ticket for the prison tour. The boat ride was choppy and cold. He stayed inside the passenger cabin and watched the waves and the seagulls that hovered about the boat.

On the island, he saw the barracks and admired a dilapidated water tower. Ivy grew up its trellis and over the rusted supports and into the rotting wooden base of the tank. The wind was blowing hard from what seemed like all directions at once. There was a whole city on Alcatraz, abandoned to disuse and decay. He walked past foundations and former garden plots and two rusted metal kitchen chairs resting on their backs at the foot of a thick bush.

Inside the prison, he volunteered to demonstrate captivity for the group. A nervous woman named Melanie, whose daughter had pushed her forward when the tour guide asked for volunteers, joined him in the cell. Melanie answered “Salinas” when the tour guide asked where she was from. The two of them entered the cell and turned to face the group. The tour guide asked Martin what his name was. He looked at the small crowd of people outside the cell and he looked at the tour guide. Then he said, “My name is Robert.”

Then the tour guide asked Martin where he was from. He said, “Stockholm.” And then added, “In Sweden.” The cell door rolled into place.

The tour guide told the group to imagine what life would have been like for the prisoners. “This is no Salinas,” the guide said. “No Stockholm.” Martin held a cell bar in each of his hands. They were cold and rough. On the back wall of the cell a small hole through which a prisoner had once escaped. The tour guide recited a brief explanation of how the prisoner had created the hole and concealed it from the prison guards.

Then the tour guide made a big show of setting Martin and the woman free from jail. “Melanie,” he said, and smiled at the group. “You served your time.” The tour guide then turned to Martin. “Stockholm,” he said. “You are rehabilitated.” The tour guide then pulled a lever at the end of the block of cells and the door opened. When Martin stepped free from the cell, the tour guide leaned forward and whispered, “I’m sorry. I forgot your name.”

On the ferry back to Pier 33, Melanie approached him. Her daughter was behind her, nodding her head in an encouraging way. “Hello,” Melanie said. She took a seat beside him and held out her hand for him to shake. He took her hand, shook it, and said, again, “My name is Robert.” He pronounced Robert the American way. He thought this would make it easier for Melanie to understand him. She said the name back to him. It sounded unnatural to him and he regretted immediately not giving her his real name. “We were locked up together,” she said.

“Yes,” he said. Melanie appeared not to have planned what to say after this. She sat and looked at her shoes. This made him uncomfortable, so he asked her what her and her daughter’s plans for the rest of the day were. Outside, the whitecaps stretched across the bay. There was a thick fog sitting beyond the bridge.

“Forbes Island,” she said. “I saw a program about it and have always wanted to go. Do you know what it is?”

He said that he did not.

“It’s a houseboat, or more of a barge, really,” Melanie said. She looked to her daughter as if for confirmation. “I don’t know. It’s a floating island. There’s a restaurant there.”

The ferry landed. Melanie and her daughter disembarked before he did. They were waiting for him when he got off the boat. The wind was still blowing, but he was now able to feel that it blew in off the water. “My daughter is going back to our hotel to do some schoolwork,” Melanie said. “I was thinking a glass of wine at Forbes sounded pretty good about now. Care to join me?”

Melanie’s daughter looked at him and said, as though he had accused her of not knowing, “The hotel is just over there.”

“Yes,” he said. “I’d like that.” He watched Melanie’s daughter walk away from them, her hair blowing with the wind away from the water and toward the city. Soon he and Melanie were walking slowly in the opposite direction along the busy and wide sidewalk of the Embarcadero.

“There used to be sea lions here,” Melanie said. They’d come to Pier 39. Even in the late afternoon it was busy with tourists and traffic. Martin disliked crowds. “But they’re all gone now for some reason. The guide on our tour told us yesterday.”

At Forbes Island they ordered drinks and went to the edge of one of the sand patios. Behind them the heavy leaves from one of the palm trees made a scratching noise. He couldn’t tell if the tree was real or just a very good replica. They watched the fog. Ferryboats made their way back to the city from Angel Island and Alcatraz. In the far distance, he counted at least a dozen sailboats. Melanie touched his shoulder.

Because he was too polite to come up with a reasonable excuse not to stretch a glass of wine into a meal, they ate together in the subaquatic dining room. He watched the green water outside the window above their table and tried not to think about being submerged. His wife, he thought, would love it here. She enjoyed unusual places like this. He knew exactly what she would tell her friends about the restaurant. “Only in America,” she’d say. “A floating island! Can you imagine?”

Melanie was divorced. She and her daughter had been visiting colleges in San Francisco, where her daughter wanted to go to school. This was their last day in the Bay Area. She wasn’t really from Salinas, but it was the first city that came to mind when the tour guide asked.

During the meal, she asked if the bar at his hotel was nice. She asked what the view was like from his room. She leaned close to him across the table, mirroring his arm movements. She told him she was lonely. He understood what she was doing. To each of her questions, he answered honestly and briefly. He told her about his job, about his trip to California so far, though he was careful to leave out San Luis Obispo altogether. He also did not tell her he was married. He told her about how in middle school he’d lost the tip of his left index finger to frostbite. His class had been orienteering and he’d missed one of the control points near the end of the course and wandered into the thick forest until he’d reached a farmhouse about five kilometers from the orienteering course. He thought the story spoke to his carelessness, so he rarely told it. But at Forbes Island, he felt it might somehow dissuade Melanie from her pursuit. She asked to see his finger, and he showed her. She took it between two of her fingers and squeezed. Then she turned her head side to side, examining the stub from every angle. He watched her do this. There was really nothing remarkable about the missing finger. It looked like a normal finger, only a little shorter and missing a fingernail.

“Do you have phantom limb syndrome?” Melanie asked.

He said he’d never felt anything like that, and it wasn’t an expression he’d heard in English, but he knew what she meant. He pulled his hand from hers. When it came, Martin paid the bill, although she offered to help.

“It’s unseasonably warm,” she told him outside. “The weather report this morning on the news said so. Unseasonably warm is a strange expression, don’t you think? It’s summer. It’s supposed to be warm.”

“Summer is often cold here,” he said, repeating something he’d heard from one of the bartenders at his hotel just the night before. Whenever he was aware he’d done so, he felt embarrassed to correct women this way. They crossed the Embarcadero and walked several blocks into North Beach, finally catching a cab on Columbus not far from Washington Square Park, which Melanie pointed out as they passed. “You know your way around,” Martin said. Melanie shifted nervously when he said this. She looked embarrassed, but he didn’t know English well enough to know why. At the hotel, she suggested they have a nightcap. “Something for the road,” she said. “Unless?”

He led Melanie into the bar, where they found a table near the television. The Giants, she explained while turning the pages of the cocktail menu, were playing the Dodgers. “It’s a great rivalry.”

After they’d ordered something to drink, he excused himself to use the restroom. He left the bar and entered the lobby, where he turned and looked back at Melanie. The drinks arrived while he was watching. Melanie sipped her drink through a straw and watched the baseball game. She clapped quietly when one of the Giants hit the ball deep into the outfield, and Martin wanted nothing more than to go home.

He took the elevator back to his floor and entered his room and locked the door behind him. He didn’t answer the phone when it rang, and he didn’t go to the door when someone knocked on it. He lay on the bed in the dark room and waited until he fell asleep. In the morning, he again checked out early and drove back to Los Angeles, where he stayed, uneventfully, for the rest of his trip.

The waitress at the Sakura Karaoke Bar brought another round of sake and Chinese beer. She knocked before entering. The room was warm and when the thick glass door opened, cold air rushed in and Martin felt this on his face. He was holding the microphone, waiting for the song to start. The waitress set the bottles on the table, gave a shallow bow, and backed out of the room. One of his colleagues pressed the play button on the console below the television. “Hotel California” began to play over the tinny speakers. Martin sang along for the first few bars. But soon he found himself thinking of Cesar in bed in San Luis Obispo. He saw the dark motel room, and through the opening in the curtains the black of the sky. Outside, a lamp mounted on the wall just above the large window cast an orange light back into the room, over Cesar and around him, and he moved side to side to music Martin could not now recall.

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