The Pioneer Hotel

Elizabeth Sowden

Sunday mornings in the Pioneer were the quietest. Sunlight filtered through the long, arched windows and made a geometric pattern that stretched across the scarred floorboards. A cord bearing a naked lightbulb snaked through the chicken-wire ceiling. George dressed in an ancient pair of Oxfords and a double-breasted suit. The suit was hopelessly out of style, but he’d found it for next to nothing at Nate’s. His daughter, Millie, was meeting him for lunch one last time before she left town. George wanted to look nice.

In the pocket of the blazer, he found an old piece of penny candy. He knelt down by the foot of his aluminum bed and drummed his fingers against the wall. George twisted the cellophane wrapper and waited. Moments later, Bojack poked his head out of a crack in the wall, his tiny nose twitching. The rat flattened himself and squeezed out of the hole. He sat on his hind legs and put his little paws on George’s hand. George stroked the rat’s silky fur as it nibbled the candy.

George had named the rat after his two sons, Jack and Beau, both of whom he’d lost in the war. Jack was shot and then drowned in a shallow pool of seawater on Omaha Beach. And Beau...Beau wasn’t technically dead. The Navy listed him as missing in action. A plane he was flying vanished somewhere off the coast of the Solomon Islands.

Someone in the next cage coughed. Bojack stiffened, then skittered back into his hole.

***

Millie lit a cigarette as she waited outside the Pioneer Hotel. Hotel wasn't the right word for the place. Flop joint. Fleabox. Rat factory. Firetrap. Those were better words. She'd been inside once or twice; it stank of old men who didn't wash, backed-up toilets, and bean stew. The walls were stained brown from where the old geezers spit tobacco juice. Millie could have sworn that she had heard that the city planned to close down all of the cage hotels. Men boxed into closet-sized rooms and sleeping under chicken wire was unhealthy, they said.

Though Millie knew the city was probably right, she hoped they wouldn’t shut down the Pioneer, or the Victor or the Beaufort. True, the flops were a far cry from the Palmer House, but where else could a man sleep for just a few cents per night? Her Pop’s railroad pension paid him well, but he spent almost all of it on whiskey. Without the Pioneer, where would he go?

***

George descended the staircase that led to the street. It was dark and steep, with only a small amount of light shining through the entryway below. He could see Millie through the glass.

“How are you, Pop?” Millie asked as George kissed her cheek. He gently tugged on one of her auburn curls and watched it snap back into place. With her fiery hair and plump cheeks, she looked just like her mother did when he first met her. She wore a white dress dotted with little strawberries and trimmed with red rickrack.

“That’s some dress,” he said. “I remember when I was a kid, your grandmother would never buy white fabric when she made clothes for us. She said it was too hard to keep clean. Back in the aughts, only ritzy people wore white.”

“Maybe I’m ritzy,” Millie sassed. She looped her arm through George’s elbow. She was relieved he wasn’t drunk. The men who lived in the Gateway District flops liked to start early.

“How much are they paying you this season?”

“Eighty dollars a week.”

George whistled. “I worked for thirty-five years laying track for the Great Northern Railroad, and they never paid me even half that much.”

They turned away from the Pioneer and walked south on Nicollet Avenue, past the liquor stores, the missions, the slop joints, and the other flops. George had stayed away from the Persian Palms for three weeks to save up the money to take his daughter to a nice lunch before she went away for the entire summer. Avoiding the Palms had been tough, but he reminded himself that if he let a bunch of B-girls guzzle sloe gin on his dime, he wouldn't be able to buy his daughter anything nicer than a liverwurst sandwich and some boiled eggs. And Millie, she was a star, a star baseball player. She deserved better than slop, and he wasn't about to let her pay for it.

"I still have to get past the tryout," she said. In a few hours, Millie would board a train to Chicago, where she would report to Wrigley Field and fight for a spot in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League.

“You’ve got past the tryout every year for the past ten years! What are you worried about?”

“My shoulder aches a bit. My pitching arm. Ever since they switched us to pitching overhand, like the men in the Majors do, my shoulder’s been aching. It’s not bad. Well, not real bad. I can still pitch. It’s fine.”

"You're darn right it's fine! You remember when I hurt my knee all those years ago? Lugging railroad ties in the mud. I slipped and twisted my knee. Felt like the whole thing was just shredded. But I still worked. I still worked until it was time to retire, and they gave me my pension."

Millie remembered. Two of the men he worked with carried him up the stairs to their house. He was drunk from the whiskey they'd given him. He tried to kiss her, and she recoiled from the smell. The next morning, he went to work. He never missed work, and his knee never healed.

***

The oak-paneled dining room at Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale was lit softly with candles. George and Millie sipped Presidents — a cocktail made with gin, grenadine, orange, and lemon juice. George ordered the steak in butter sauce, while Millie opted for the pompano en papillote: fish fillets in a buttery mushroom and seafood sauce, baked in parchment paper.

“I oughta come see one of your games this year,” George said. He stabbed a piece of steak with his fork. “I could save up my money. Buy a train ticket.”

Millie picked up her glass and breathed in the piney scent of the gin. “That would be great, Pop.”

She pictured her father in the stands at the ballpark in Rockford or Racine. She took a long sip of her drink.

For dessert, they shared a flaming Cherries Jubilee. The waiter doused the blood-red cherries with brandy and struck a match. Blue flames erupted and quickly burned away.

***

The clock tower on top of the train depot cast a long shadow over the street. Millie retrieved her small suitcase from temporary storage. George walked her to the platform.

"See you in September, Pop," she said. He put his arms around her. She could smell the flophouse in the fabric of his suit: sweat, stew, and tobacco.

“Write to me when you can,” he said.

Millie felt her throat tighten. She stepped onto the train and glanced through the train window at her father, who was still standing on the platform.

George waited until the train pulled out of the station and then headed straight for the Persian Palms.

***

On the train, Millie tried to sleep, but the compartment was too warm. After Pop’s knee injury, he started drinking more. Sometimes, he’d stay in a flophouse in the Gateway District and sleep it off if he’d had too many. When he brought lice into the house after returning from a flop, Mom said the next time he went to one of those flea pits, he should just stay there.

A week later, Pop moved into the Pioneer Hotel and never came home again. Even though the Pioneer was just two miles away from their house, Millie didn’t see Pop for years.

Then the war happened. At Jack’s funeral, Millie sat in the front row, staring down at her shoes. The old wooden pew groaned as someone sat next to her. She felt a gentle arm around her shoulders and smelled whiskey. Millie rested her head on Pop’s shoulder and felt his whiskers against her forehead. Beau, who was on leave for the funeral, sat on the other side of Pop, who wound his free arm around his living son. Beau wore his dress blues and Millie a new skirt suit made of black tweed. Pop’s old three-piece pinstripe suit still looked dapper; you had to look closely to see the threadbare edges on the lapels.

Through the train window, Millie could see that the sky was turning from black to purple. She would arrive in Chicago soon. She needed to sleep. She squeezed her eyes shut and felt a tear roll down the side of her nose.

***

George spent the last of his cash on whiskey sours at the Persian Palms. His friend Cornelius slung an arm around George’s back and helped him climb the stairs at the Pioneer.

“My wife went to Montana,” George slurred as he plopped onto his bed. “Sh’ sol’ the house ‘n married someone else.”

"I know," Cornelius nodded drowsily. He was drunk too.

“An’ my girl’s gone. Gone ‘til Sept...September.”

“I know.”

“An’ my boys…” Tears dampened George’s grizzled cheeks.

“Sleep. Sleep. We gotta sleep,” said Cornelius as he helped George take off his shoes. George closed his eyes.

A few hours later, after the effects of the whiskey had worn off, George lay awake, listening to the sounds of men snoring. He heard a scratching sound and reached an arm over the side of the bed, his knuckles brushing against the floor. Bojack's eyes glowed like embers in the dark. The rat crept silently over the dusty floorboards and sniffed George's fingers. George scooped the rat up and placed the animal on his chest. He folded both hands over the rat's back and tickled its soft belly with his thumbs. The rat nuzzled George's chin.

***

The tender grass at Wrigley Field shimmered under the afternoon sun. Millie gripped the ball with her thumb and two fingers. She brought her knee up to her chest and kicked, twisting her body and releasing the ball. She watched it break just as it crossed the plate. The batter swung and missed.

Two managers stood near the on-deck circle watching Millie pitch. She knew them both; she'd played under them, on different teams. One of them clenched a cigar end between his teeth. Two seasons ago, in a one-run game, he yanked Millie from the mound when a left-handed batter came up to the plate. The pitcher who took over gave up a home run on the first pitch, costing them the game. She stared at him now with narrowed eyes.

The catcher tossed the ball back to Millie, who held her glove up to her face as she switched to a changeup grip. Her changeup would seal the deal. It always did. She set up for the pitch, and as she released the ball, she felt it roll off her fingertips. The batter hacked at air. Sweat trickled down the back of Millie's neck. She heard nothing other than the sound of the ball smacking the leather of the catcher's mitt.

In the shower after the tryout, Millie felt a pinch in her shoulder. It’s fine, she told herself. So long as it didn’t bother her while she was on the mound, she could live with it.

Maybe after the season was over, she’d have enough money to buy a house for her and Pop so he could finally stop living in a cage.

***

In the day room at the Pioneer, George played cards with Cornelius and two other guys. On a small television, black-and-white footage of Mickey Mantle talking to a reporter played without sound. George wished that they would show Millie's baseball games on TV. Ten years in the league, and he had never once seen her play.

“I should save up my money and buy a train ticket,” George said to no one in particular. “I should go see my Millie play ball. Both of my boys played in high school. I never made it to their games.” After all, Millie might not have many more seasons of play left in her. She had said so herself; her shoulder bothered her. George had pretended not to be concerned because he didn’t want her to get in her head about it. But he knew if she injured it, it could change everything for her.

“What’cha got there, Mack?” Cornelius asked. George turned and saw Mack standing behind them. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man who wore his shirt open at the collar, revealing a gold saint’s medal on a knotted chain. He held the limp body of a dead rat in one of his large hands.

“Do you believe this?” Mack asked, holding up the rat for the men to see. Mack was the owner of the Pioneer. He also owned the liquor store next door and a bar around the corner. “It’s huge. If I didn’t know better, I’d think one of you degenerates was feedin’ him.”

George looked closely at the rat. Its eyes were squeezed shut, and its mouth was open, its tongue faintly stained with something green. George bit the inside of his lip to keep from crying.

***

At dusk, Washington Avenue was dark except for the glowing marquee lights of the Persian Palms. George felt the sky above him spinning as he sat on the sidewalk, blood dripping from his face onto the pavement. The neon signs in the windows cast a red glare over everything. In the light, his blood looked black. It was sticky.

Out of the corner of his eye, George saw a policeman standing on the other side of the street. George struggled to get to his feet and walk in the opposite direction. He couldn’t take another night in the drunk tank.

***

A few days later, the purple bloom underneath George’s eye started to fade. He drummed his fingers against the wall and waited, even though he knew Bojack would not appear. Cashless, he sat through a preacher’s sermon on temperance at the Union City Mission in exchange for a root beer and a hot beef sandwich. After leaving the mission, he joined his friends in Gateway Park. They shared a bottle of wine.

Back at the Pioneer, Mack was standing behind the desk in the lobby.

“George,” Mack said, “this came for you.”

Mack handed him a postcard that showed a picture of a boat in a blue harbor. On the back, Millie had written her new address in South Bend.

“Pitching for South Bend Blue Sox,” she wrote. “Team looks good this year. First game in Kenosha. Write soon.”

At the very bottom, where there was hardly any space to write, Millie printed in tiny letters, “See you in September.”


About the Author

Elizabeth Sowden is the author of Tough Love at Mystic Bay, a novel that takes on the troubled teen industry. She studied writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in Minneapolis, where she enjoys martial arts, horses, and cooking.