Excerpt

“A Room in Baltimore”

Madeleine L'Engle

April 22, 2020 
Madeleine L’Engle published her first novel, The Small Rain, in 1945. Four years later, she published her first children’s book, And Both Were Young. Her Newbery-award winning novel A Wrinkle in Time, which was published in 1962, dealt with themes she toyed with in her diaries for years, from personal shortcomings to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. L’Engle wrote fiction and nonfiction for adults, as well as poetry. She died in 2007.

It was about eight thirty when the train, several hours late as usual, pulled into Baltimore, and we were starved because we hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast. No stop long enough for us to dash to a station lunchroom, nobody coming through the train with paper cups of coffee and sandwiches, no dining car. We were tired, too, because we’d just done a lot of one-night stands, and the prospect of a week, of seven whole nights, in one town, was very welcome.

I left my roommate, Fiona, at the information desk. Hugh and Bob, our two best friends among the men in the company, took our suitcases along to their hotel so we wouldn’t have to carry them. Fiona and I were the only two in the company who weren’t settled in a hotel, and Fiona wasn’t settled solely out of kindness to me. I wasn’t settled because of Touché.

Touché is a very small silver French poodle, and she had quite a big part in the play, far bigger than mine. Touché had three curtain calls and I only got in on the big general company one. Touché shared the stars’ dressing room on the stage floor while I was always several rickety flights up. I don’t know whether it’s a tribute to my noble nature or to Touché’s charm and undoubted acting ability that I didn’t mind her having a juicy role while I was just several walk-ons and general understudy, and that I never wished she didn’t belong to me when no hotel would accept our reservations or I had to spend ten hours in a freezing baggage car when the conductor didn’t melt at the sight of her lovely little face, or when I didn’t get away with holding her under my coat in the general position of my middle, and looking wan and in an interesting condition.

I got Touché out of the baggage car now and joined Fiona. She had once played a summer of stock in Baltimore and had stayed in a boarding house where she was great friends with everybody, so we weren’t, for once, worried about finding a room.

It was quite dark and starting to snow, which meant I couldn’t find a star to wish on. This depressed me a little, since I’d almost had a quarrel with Hugh on the train over a game of double solitaire called Spite and Malice which we played on a suitcase balanced on our knees; but I knew that with no hotel to be depressed in, and on an empty stomach, I had better squelch my superstitions. Besides, Hugh was trying to teach me not to say “bread and butter” when something came between us, or to go back around the block when a black cat crossed my path; and every time I came to his dressing room he started whistling.

Touché was as hungry as Fiona and I, so one of the first things we did was to stop at a lunch wagon and buy her a hamburger. We had some coffee but resisted the temptation to get a couple of hamburgers for ourselves because we had decided to get settled first, and then meet the boys for a real bang-up dinner, bottle of wine and all. We had to get the room first anyhow because we couldn’t go into a restaurant with Touché—though in emergencies I’d found the enceinte trick worked very well, and Touché never gave it away by moving or barking, but lay, far quieter than any baby, born or otherwise, with her little grey head under the table cloth, nudging my knee gently if I didn’t slip her a bite often enough.

Touché is a very small silver French poodle, and she had quite a big part in the play, far bigger than mine.

Now, anyone who knows Baltimore knows that there are two stations, each one at opposite ends of the city. Of course, Fiona’s boarding house was very close to the station we hadn’t arrived at. So Fiona led the way. I’d played Baltimore once before but I never did have any bump of locality, so I just followed her blindly, and wherever I went, Touché went, too. The only thing I was sure of was that I would never go back to the dreadful hotel where four of us had stayed on two very dirty double beds and where there was a bathtub bang in the middle of the room with a screen around it—but no toilet. The fact that we paid four dollars a week apiece didn’t make up for the filth that even the bottle of Lysol that was our constant companion from hotel to hotel couldn’t make us forget.

“It won’t be long now,” Fiona said comfortingly after we had tramped for blocks and blocks and blocks and Touché was beginning to drag on her leash. “It’s a lovely boarding house with great big rooms and it’ll be a lovely change after all those awful hotels.” Fiona’s full name is Fiona Feanne (pronounced for some reason Foy-een-ya) O’Shiell, and she is a creature almost as ravishingly beautiful as Touché (than which there could be no higher praise) with masses of red hair and alabaster skin and a body so lovely that most people, learning that we were in the theatre, asked if we were playing the Gaiety, or whatever was the name of the nearest burlesque house. She walked along now, her face held up to the soft white flakes of snow that were beginning to fall, humming a little, and Touché and I dragged along, and finally Touché deliberately held up one forepaw and started limping along pathetically on three legs until she got her own way (as usual) and I picked her up and carried her under one arm.

We walked and we walked and we walked and we walked, and Touché, for all her beauty and grace, grows heavy after a while. Finally Fiona said, “Funny we aren’t there yet. This doesn’t look like a very nice neighborhood.” She hailed a passing man and asked for the address of her boarding house. The man leered at us both, his eyes going suggestively from our heads to our feet and back up again, in a most unpleasant manner, but he did make it clear to us that we had walked all the way across Baltimore for nothing; Fiona’s boarding house was a few blocks from the station at which we had arrived.

Fiona turned red and then white and then red again. “I don’t know how it could have happened—I could have sworn—Oh, please, forgive me!” she gasped.

If it hadn’t been for Touché and me, Fiona would have been safely settled in the Lord Baltimore with Hugh and Bob and most of the rest of the company. How could I help forgiving her? I stamped my very wet, very cold feet, in shoes that needed resoling. “It’s okay, Fifi, but let’s get going. I’m starved and frozen.”

Fiona flung her arm around me. “Tonight I’ll give you a ten-dollar back rub,” she said. “That’s a promise.”

Touché growled as Fiona touched me, but she just pulled the curly grey puff of bangs. “Angel, I am not molesting your mistress, so shut up. What on earth are you going to do with Toosh on your wedding night?”

We tried to take a taxi but it seems in Baltimore dogs are not allowed in taxis and she kept slipping out from under the front of my coat. We knew it would do no good to try a bus, so we walked. In about a weary hour and a half we were back in what, to Fiona, was familiar ground, and soon we went up the brown stone steps of a very nice-looking house. I didn’t care what sort of a room they gave us. I didn’t even care much about dinner with wine with Hugh and Bob. I just wanted to take a hot bath and get into bed and have one of Fiona’s ten-dollar back rubs.

The boarding house keeper gave one look at my beautiful, my sweet, my adorable Touché, and said they didn’t take dogs and couldn’t make an exception even for a dog who worked to earn her own living. Fiona cajoled and wheedled with all her Irish charm, and Touché, true to her histrionic nature, stood on her hind legs and danced, but the boarding house keeper (who shall be nameless) was a hatchet-faced old sour-puss and there was no getting around her. As she was gently pushing us out the door she started to coo over Touché. This was the last straw.

“If you refuse to allow my dog in your home, please stop gurgling over her,” I said coldly, and stalked out. Fiona hurried down the steps after me.

“Angel, that was rude of you, you know,” she said softly. I was ashamed of my temper as I always am once it’s lost, but I wasn’t going to admit it. I reached in the pocket of my old trench coat and pulled out the typewritten list of Baltimore hotels that Al

Finch, our advance manager, had posted on the call board. We started by trying all the hotels in the neighborhood. They were without exception expensive, but that needn’t have bothered us because they wouldn’t take Touché anyhow. Finally we decided to forget the size of our weekly paychecks and try the frightfully expensive hotel where Miss Le Gallienne and Mr. Schildkraut, our stars, were staying.

The boarding house keeper gave one look at my beautiful Touché, and said they didn’t take dogs and couldn’t make an exception even for a dog who worked to earn her own living.

“I’m sorry,” the manager said, “but we don’t take dogs.” “Look here.” I was almost in tears. “Miss Eva Le Gallienne is staying here and she has two cairns and a combination Manchester terrier–Chihuahua. And Mr. Joseph Schildkraut is here, too, and he has three Chihuahuas. I know because I walk them every day.”

At this point the hotel orchestra, which we could hear playing dimly in the distance, for some reason began to play “The Star- Spangled Banner.” This was also played at the end of the overture and we had taught Touché, waiting on stage with the rest of the company, to stand at attention. As she heard the familiar strains her grey ears pricked up, and, tired though she was, she rose to her hind legs and put one small grey paw to her forehead. I relaxed, certain that now we would be shown the bridal suite.

The manager didn’t change expression. “I’m very sorry, but we take no dogs.”

Now, I think Miss Le Gallienne and Mr. Schildkraut deserve every possible consideration a star can get, but this hotel business was beginning to burn me up, not to mention my rage at anyone crass enough not to appreciate Touché. Also, I was having a hard time to keep from crying with anger, hunger, and fatigue. I looked up at the manager with brimming eyes. “If you keep on telling lies like this, someday God will strike you down. Come, Fiona. Come, Touché.” And we stalked out again.

This time Fiona did not scold me for being rude. Back in the street I turned up my collar and blew my nose. Fiona quietly took the list of hotels from me. “Here’s one that says theatrical rates only a couple of blocks from here. Come on, angel.”

“Look, Fifi, Toosh and I will understand perfectly if you go on back to the Lord Baltimore. Do go on, please, and we’ll call you when we find a place and tell you where we are.”

Fiona said nothing to this and walked determinedly down the street, and Toosh and I staggered after her. We got to the corner where the theatrical hotel was supposed to be, but at that number was an imposing-looking building with a canopy leading to the front door and we guessed with sinking hearts that the management had changed and the rates would no longer be “theatrical.”

“Well, let’s try anyhow, it’s only money,” Fiona said. We went up to the door and were just about to go in when Fiona clutched my arm in a frantic manner and pointed to a brass plate on the door. In chaste letters it announced: crematorium.

We turned and ran down the steps and I started to roar with laughter. “What,” demanded Fiona, “is funny?”

“I was just thinking,” I explained, “of how they’d have looked if we’d gone in and asked if they took dogs, and could they put us up for the night!”

Well, we started back to the center of town to the hotels that were nearer the theatre. It was a good bit after eleven o’clock by now and even the inexhaustible Fiona was on her last legs.

We looked for a phone and I finally went into a bar and called the boys at the Lord Baltimore to tell them to check our suitcases downstairs and go on to bed. We’d probably sleep in the station or maybe find a church that was open all night. Hugh was properly sympathetic but agreed to leave the bags downstairs, saying they were very tired and they’d already had something to eat anyhow because they hadn’t heard from us.

They were tired! I thought furiously, and hung up just as a large cockroach crawled across the telephone box. I am terrified of cockroaches so I dropped the receiver like a hot coal and dashed out to Fiona and Touché, quite certain that my name would never be changed to Mrs. Hugh Franklin. (Funnily enough, it is.)

It took us a good half hour to get into town through the falling snow that at least had the grace to be getting drier instead of wetter. My feet were so cold now that I couldn’t feel anything, even the blisters on the backs of both heels. Touché lay like a pathetic lump of lead in my arm, and I thought wistfully of all the pleasant autumnal walks we’d had earlier in the tour, when Hugh would walk me back to my hotel after the performance.

We always walked until Touché had done a final wee wee for the night, and on the evenings that I was not with Hugh she would always head for the nearest lamppost (because it was a spot- light, not because it was a lamppost) and perform; on the nights when Hugh, of whom she approved, was with me, we would sometimes walk for over an hour before she would finally have to give in and squat.

“What about the hotel you stayed in the last time you were here?” Fiona asked tentatively.

“Fifi, we simply can’t stay there. It’s too awful to describe and Toosh would never agree to it.”

By midnight we had tried all the hotels on the list except one. The remark after this was “Cheap, but certainly wouldn’t recommend it for the girls.”

It was only a couple of blocks from the theatre so we decided to try it anyhow. The exterior didn’t look too prepossessing. Outside a dirty brown building a large sign in lurid red lights said, one dollar a night.

Fiona turned to me. “At this point we’ll try anything, but this looks like A House, not a hotel.”

We went into the lobby. The floor was tiled with the kind of small white tiling you usually find only in bathrooms. A few exhausted-looking soldiers and sailors were sprawled in chairs whose springs sagged through the torn upholstery. Both Fiona and I did a double take when we looked at the man behind the desk; his face was the color of parchment; he looked as though he’d been embalmed and then they’d decided he wasn’t dead after all. On his head he wore a wig, which was pale pink. I suppose it was meant to be blond but it had faded to baby pink. Out from under it strayed a few damp grey hairs. Touché looked at him and growled with great disapproval. I closed my fingers firmly around her muzzle and she stopped.

“Do you take dogs?” Fiona demanded bluntly of the man in the pink wig.

He just grinned foolishly. “Do I take dogs?”

I held Toosh out towards him. “Do you take this dog?”

“Do I take dogs?” he asked again. “How many beds? One? Two? Three? Four?”

“One bed is cheaper than two?” Fiona asked. He nodded. “All right. How much for a double bed for one week?”

“Six dollars apiece for the young ladies. The dog can share it with you.”

“Okay,” Fiona said brusquely. “Let’s see it.”

The little man took us up in the elevator himself. I don’t think they had anyone else to run it. It was one of those elevators where there aren’t any doors and only two walls. They make Touché and me nervous.

“What do you girls do?”

“We work in the theatre,” Fiona said.

“At the Gaiety?” the little man asked—as usual.

“No.” Fiona was very indignant. “We’re playing Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at Ford’s Theatre with Eva Le Gallienne and Joseph Schildkraut.”

The little man looked disappointed, but then his eyes flickered hopefully. “Either of you by any chance Eva Le Gallienne?”

Fiona and I imagined Miss Le Gallienne staying in that particular hotel and laughed heartily.

The little man looked hurt and took us down a dim and dirty corridor and flung open a door with a flourish. “Some sailors been sleeping here today,” he said, “but we’ll change the sheets for you.” He made this sound like a great favor.

Buff wallpaper with a spider design was peeling off the walls. The ceiling was about to fall. A lumpy-looking tumbled iron bed stuck out from one corner, a wardrobe huge enough to hold any number of murderers or skeletons from another. There was a chair that had evidently actually become so shabby it had to be taken out of the lobby, and a three-legged desk. The floor was covered with cigarette butts, matches, ashes. Touché pressed closer to me so that she would not be contaminated by coming in contact with anything. Fiona and I looked at each other and our hearts sank.

“Let me see the bathroom,” Fiona said bravely. We were astounded to find the bathroom reasonably clean and reasonably modern. We thought of our bottle of Lysol and nodded.

“We’ll take it,” Fiona said to the little man. “Please see that the floor is properly swept. We’ll go down and sign the register now.”

While the little man was carefully studying our signatures Fiona said, “Now we’ll go get our suitcases.”

“Suitcases!” the little man with the pink wig said. “What would two pretty girls like you want with suitcases?”

I was about to make an appropriate remark but Fiona pushed me out the door. Fortunately it wasn’t far to the Lord Baltimore. We picked up our bags and they felt as though they were filled with lead. We thought of Hugh and Bob, having had dinner, asleep in comfortable twin beds, and felt very sorry for ourselves and not very kindly disposed towards anyone else who had not shared in our troubles. We knew we’d never be able to stagger back to the hotel with our suitcases, so we stood and flagged a taxi.

We felt very sorry for ourselves and not very kindly disposed towards anyone else who had not shared in our troubles.

Fiona did a last act of Camille for the driver, coughing pathetically and looking beautiful; I stood and glowered, and Touché held up one paw and tried to lick it, limped a few steps, and finally stood on her hind legs and pressed her forepaws together as though in prayer, and the driver succumbed, whether to the histrionics and beauty of Fiona and Touché or to both combined, I’m not sure.

It was after one when we finally got up to our room. Normally this is pretty early for us, but that night it didn’t seem so. We were far too tired, hungry though we were, to think about dinner. Besides, what would have been open in Baltimore so late on a Sunday night?

Fiona got out the Lysol and we wearily scrubbed the bathroom and the foot- and headboards of the bed and all the doorknobs. We opened one bureau drawer and found it filled with more dirty cigarette butts and a handkerchief that Fiona said had been used for not very nice purposes, so we decided to live out of our suitcases.

They had put clean sheets on the bed while we were fetching the suitcases, but the blankets and spread hadn’t been changed since the opening of the hotel a couple of centuries before. I knew Touché would never consent to sleep on that dirty floor, or even on the counterpane, so I spread my coat out on the foot of the bed and put her blanket over that.

We took baths and then I took Touché’s dog biscuits out of my suitcase and the three of us each ate several and fell asleep, counting, instead of sheep, the days till we could leave Baltimore the next Sunday morning for seven weeks of one-night stands.

__________________________________

From The Moment of Tenderness by Madeleine L’Engle. Copyright © 2020 by Crosswicks, Ltd. and reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. For intro: a version of the story was part of Madeleine’s book Two-Part Invention.




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