I got news of his death around five. He was at the Ferry Hotel. He’d been there on and off
for a year. The rest of the time you wouldn’t know where he was. Likely you’d see him an alley next to a restaurant. Or on a park bench, looking at the grass with a pint in his pocket. Destitute is a nice word for where Red had got. His red hair had about turned white. He’d been a medium built man with a thick strong neck and set of shoulders that would fill a uniform. Lately he’d had trouble holding up a suit.
I wondered where he got the money for lodgings. Maybe he panhandled or got some welfare. He was an enlisted man. He was particular about that. Not drafted. He hadn’t
waited to be called from the motor production line. But at thirty four he was eligible for nothing. Truth is I don’t know how he lived those last years. I only know he had been in Vets’ hospital for liver damage. Jaundiced is nice word for the yellow tinge that had seeped into his skin and made abrasions hard to heal.
I hailed a cab and when I said Ferry Hotel, Embarcadero Street, the cabbie shot me a sideways look. The Ferry is down the end of the Embaracadero. The deep end. It’s a long street that curves the length of the dock. In the centre is the Y.M.C.A. with flags on top. It was built in the twenties before the crash. It looks like a bank. Red stayed there when he first came from Louisville. But the rooms still cost, even for an ex serviceman, and there was no work, or not enough to live on, straight after the war
The Ferry Hotel goes back to an older time in San Francisco, a three story box
of rat traps with a fire escape out back. A ferry still took short trip commuters
to work from across the bay but most ferries used the main terminal across from the Y.
The Ferry had been a squat red brick building but now it was black. Windows once picked out in white were grey. On the front the windows were the opaque bubble type that makes what happens on the other side look like it’s underwater.
This would have suited anyone looking in or out. Over the street there was a set of medium sized buildings like broken teeth. A post war recession in property meant the wrecking ball hadn’t got to them yet. But it was swinging. Inside, most denizens of the Ferry Hotel would have been happy not to be seen there. Occasionally an out of towner would book by mistake for a few days. Or a salesman would cut budget on a quick trip. Otherwise the Ferry catered for short-timers or men who had managed to get a break from streets, parks and alleys.
During the post-war recession all big cities hosted a small colony of ex-servicemen who had made it back from war but not made it into civilian life. You felt both sorry and scared if you saw one. They were usually alone as they rifled through a garbage bin, or came towards you with everything they owned on their back.
I paid the cabbie and booked him to come back in twenty minutes. That would be long enough for what I had to do. The foyer had once had a piece of light patterned carpet down to the door, but that was long ago. Green linoleum slid from what was left. The desk was empty. The sound of a blues song was coming from the office behind a half closed door. It could have been Billie and I Cover the Waterfront. That would have been cute, but I didn’t wait to hear.
I knew where he was.
I took the stairs. They’re faster than the lifts in these joints, and probably safer. On each
floor a john and bathroom waited on one end of the hall, fire escape on the other. On the
third floor I turned right.
I wanted to check on Fred Lovell who had the room next to Red. Lovell had called Emergency that morning but Emergency hadn’t come for another sick rheumy at the Ferry. Lovell must have been a good egg because he had called in later to see how Red had been getting along when he came home. By then Red was too late for Emergency. Lovell told the clerk and called help again. They were still in no hurry to get to the Ferry.
Then it occurred to me he might be waiting down in the office now with the clerk, taking a shot or two while he waited. He’d have a few questions to answer when they arrived, not
that he done anything but try to be a Samaritan.
In some ways, this made it easier. I knew Red had the next door room. Forty-five. Old locks like these don’t need a science degree to get in. I could leave the door open and hear the elevator crank up the floors and be on the stairs before it arrived.
The room was on a corner and the first thing I noticed was the light. There were windows back and side with the bed head on the back wall. He had pulled all the curtains back hard, one even rucked up on itself to let more light in. It had been a cool day in August, blue, cold and still. An early autumn after a hot summer. But the room was flooded with late afternoon light. A window was open. You could hear the sounds of the waterfront. Gulls and shipping. A horn echoed, warning someone. Seagulls propped on windowsills like trapeze artists waiting to fly.
The room was neat. I thought it might be the way a soldier had been trained to keep his kit and bed in the barracks.
And there he was.
In a sitting position, as I’d been told, fully dressed with his back against a dresser, looking, more or less, toward the window. He’d taken some care. His shirt and pants were clean and so was his light jacket. He had a loafer on one foot. The other shoe was nearby, as though he’d been trying to get it on when he fell. There was an abrasion on his forehead and some other marks on his face, as though he’d had trouble shaving. His face was a Van Gogh yellow.
I stood in front for him for a few minutes, then crouched down and looked closely at his
face. I smelt a musky odour coming both from him and his clothing. Stale booze, maybe.
But something else. From the liver, probably. If he weren’t dead you would say he was in a kind of trance, as though Death had hypnotized him before making final arrangements.
I got up and walked over to the windows. One looked into the damp brick wall of the warehouse next door. The few windows were barred. The window looking out back was a different story. From there you could see a slab of San Francisco Bay and spans of the Golden Gate Bridge. It looked the way it does in some stamps, from an angle underneath. Now, nearing nightfall, a parade of coloured lights was heading out of the city. I suspected that he’d stayed in the shadow of the Bridge, drinking, as the ships he could never take pulled out.
I didn’t touch him. I could see all I needed to. I felt the way you do sometimes do when you see a statue you want to touch, but something makes you stop. He was the man I’d seen in photographs; his wedding with Peg, skylarking with army buddies and the last one, taken when he left Louisville for San Francisco.
He had changed a lot since then. The red hair that gave him his nickname, thinning, almost white, his body wasted, as though he’d disappeared into himself in the five years he’d been in ‘Frisco.
I wondered if he’d kept photographs of us, Peg and me. I knew she’d sent them from
Sydney. His mother and seen them and commented on how healthy I was. But there was nothing on the bureau. Maybe somewhere else.
I’d seen what I came to see. It wasn’t making peace. There’d been no war between us. I couldn’t blame him for something I didn’t know. And I didn’t know a lot of things. Why
didn’t he go home to Kentucky? Was he sick with something else he brought home from New Guinea? Had he fought it? The last question was important.
The elevator started clanking, like something out of a horror movie. But it wasn’t like that. Although he’d been dead for sixty years and I’d thought a bit about it, I’d never tried to see him face to face before and this was the closest I was going to get.
From The Blue Dressing Gown & Other Poems by Ross Donlon published by Profile Poetry
Editor: Jennifer Compton
Ross Donlon is an Australian and he lives in Castlemaine in Victoria. He convenes the wonderful Castlemaine Readings in the Guildford Hotel. The title poem of his collection was a winner of the Arvon International Poetry Competition (the Wenlock Poetry Festival category.)
The cover photo on the book shows a picture of Ross’s American father whom he never met, and who died while he was a baby. Return To The Ferry Hotel is a very powerful imagining of a strange meeting.
You can find more about Ross Donlon at http://www.rossdonlon.com/
Remember to check out the poets and poems in the sidebar.
Jennifer Compton is an award-winning New Zealand-born playwright and poet who lives in Australia but has had two recent writers' residencies in New Zealand at the Randell Cottage in Wellington and Massey University, Palmerston North. Jen also won the Kathleen Grattan Prize (2010) in NZ for an unpublished collection, which was published as 'This City' (OUP 2011).