The hook bit into the plaster, and Bill swore under his breath as plaster dust rained onto his glasses and a large chip shattered on the floor. This corner of the ceiling, over the check-in desk, gave him trouble every year.
“It looks pretty, Bill,” chirped Karma, the day clerk. The string of lights threatening to fall on her head cast shifting rainbows over her face. She’d outlasted most of the perky college students he hired. Within a month or two at the Hotel Williams—the “Hotel Bill,” as the long-term residents called it—they usually saw more of the real world than they cared to. But Karma had stayed two years.
The easy-listening station finished “White Christmas” and started “From a Distance.”
Bill snorted. “Whitney Houston?”
“Bette Midler,” Karma corrected. “I hate this song.”
“Yeah, me too.” Bill ducked to avoid hitting his head on the curved place where the ceiling met the wall. The Hotel Williams was nearly a hundred years old, and the ceilings arched inward. Visitors exclaimed in delight at the elderly architecture—at least the guests who weren’t wrestling wild children, or strung out on drugs or booze when they checked in. Someone had redecorated in the 70s, with dark, chunky furniture. Luckily, chunky meant sturdy. Even a heated domestic argument, complete with thrown furniture, only dinged the already-dinged finish.
To Bill’s eye, the blasted place always looked dark. No matter where he installed lights and placed lamps, shadows always muddied the edges, same as the traffic patterns in the old carpet, or the grime around the window frames. The shadows were ground-in. Every Christmas, he played with lights, but the shadows always showed up better to his eye than the lights did.
God is watching us, from a distance, Bette Midler sang.
“You believe that, Karma?” Bill crackled and popped his way down the ladder.
She looked up from the cleaning schedule. “Come again?”
“You think we look all shiny and pretty from where God sits?”
“The gospel according to Bette Midler?” She sniffed. “God has better eyesight than that. He sees sparrows.”
A pair of sharp blue eyes behind wire glasses and a head covered in wispy grey hair appeared behind the counter. Bill jumped. He hadn’t realized Agnes had crept up on them. “I rode the double-decker bus!” she crowed.
“Great, Agnes!” Karma said. “Was it worth the eight bucks?” Some entrepreneur was selling evening tours of the Christmas-lighted downtown.
“Got off at the library,” Agnes answered. “Drug conviction in room 212.” Agnes spent most of her time spying on the other guests, or looking for their criminal records on the library Internet.
“When, Agnes?” Bill asked.
The blue eyes narrowed. “1972.”
Bill nodded solemnly. “I’ll keep an eye on him.” Every couple of months, Agnes’ information came in handy. Even paranoids could have actual scary neighbors—especially at the Hotel Williams.
And there are no guns, no bombs, and no dis-eeeeease.
Bill slapped his forehead. “Thank you, Bette Midler!” He tossed Karma the sticky notes. “Could you ask Mariana to check the drawers when she cleans 115? I’m thinking he’s got guns in there. And keep an eye on those Montoya kids—the two-year-old looked like he had pinkeye, and he was trying all the doorknobs on the third floor. Maybe you could give his mother the address for the free clinic.” That took care of guns and disease. At least they hadn’t had a bomb scare in a while.
Karma nodded and made two notes.
No hungry mouths to feed, sang Bette.
From the corner of one eye, Bill glimpsed the six-year-old Montoya sneaking an orange from the bowl on the coffee table. “Heads up!” Bill called. He tossed another orange in a long, easy arc toward the kid, who cringed sharply. The orange hit the carpet and rolled off.
Bill hurried out from behind the counter, grabbing the orange off the floor. He squatted and held it out as a peace offering before the boy could bolt. The boy looked up, eyes pink and oozing pus.
“Sorry, guy,” Bill said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
The kid grabbed the orange and darted down the hall, and Bill flopped onto the lobby’s worn green couch. From here, the curved walls seemed to close in around him, and the twinkling Christmas lights just multiplied the ground-in shadows.
Karma looked at him over the counter. “Remember your hand sanitizer, or you’ll have a pink Christmas.”
“You should ride the Christmas bus,” Agnes said, somehow appearing between Bill and the coffee table. Bill had forgotten about her. She usually wandered off after delivering her daily report.
“Yeah, I’ll think about it, Agnes.” But thinking about paying eight bucks just to see Main Street made him more tired.
The radio announcer cut off Bette’s final, pleading note. “Great song to kick off the Peace-on-Earth season, folks! Now for another Bette Midler hit!” Two notes into “Wind Beneath My Wings,” Karma switched off the radio, though Bill would have preferred to toss it out onto Main Street, where rush-hour traffic roared by in the snowy twilight.
“Go see the lights,” croaked Agnes, pointing at his nose. Agnes had come off the street about a year before, when her Social Security checks finally caught up with her and she could afford a room at the Hotel Williams. She still dressed like a bag lady. She took off her glasses and polished them on her shapeless grey sweater.
Bill waved a hand around the decorated room. “I’ve got Christmas lights right here.”
She put her own glasses back on and tapped Bill’s, catching his eye in her bright blue gaze. “You should ride the Christmas bus.”
Bill bit his tongue. “I’ll think about it, Agnes.” He didn’t want to become the center of her latest obsession.
He was too late. Agnes shadowed him all the next week, constantly telling him to ride the Christmas bus.
After exactly a week, the requests stopped. Instead, Agnes’ rolling grocery basket sprouted a selection of Christmas decorations made of cereal boxes, cotton puffs, and plastic holly she’d probably filched from the cemetery. She attempted to sell these to everyone she saw. If “customers” declined, she asked for donations instead. Bill bought a few decorations and added them to the little tree on the counter. Later, he saw her going door-to-door at the hotel. He waited for complaints, but none came.
He was just as glad. Christmas brought a rush of offers to provide Christmas dinner, Christmas gifts, and on and on. No one seemed to remember that Bill was a hotel manager, not a social worker, so he tried his best to hook the Montoyas into Sub for Santa, and to match up his three resident alcoholics with dinner invitations where they wouldn’t shock the earnest suburban families (Karma rolled her eyes when these left). With luck, the police would arrest the drug dealer before Christmas. Karma had arranged for Agnes to eat Christmas dinner with her family. Or Christmas milkshake, if Agnes mislaid her teeth again.
On Christmas Eve, Bill spent the day giving statements to the police about the drug dealer, now safely incarcerated. The bells on the front door jingled behind the last cop, but somehow they didn’t perk up Bill’s holiday spirit. He turned on his Christmas lights, scowled at the omnipresent shadows, and sprawled on the lobby couch looking for something on TV that wasn’t a “holiday” special.
He’d dozed off when Agnes appeared at his elbow like the ghost of bag lady Christmas, jolting him awake.
“Bus leaves in ten minutes,” she said. The Christmas lights haloed her head in light and ground-in shadow.
“The bus?” Bill shook his head to clear it. “Agnes, Karma’s parents are picking you up tomorrow morning.”
She pushed a grubby little card at him. “The double-decker bus.”
Bill squinted through his bifocals. “Senior, 55 and up. $8,” it said in scrolling gold. “Main Street Christmas Bus.”
“You’re riding again? Great.” He tried to hand it back, but she rummaged in her mounds of clothing and pulled out another ticket.
Bill turned over the ticket in his hands. “Agnes,” he asked, “did you buy this for me?” Suddenly, the cart full of rickety Christmas decorations made sense.
Agnes nodded so hard her glasses bounced on her nose.
“Well, thanks, sweetheart!” Bill switched off the TV and hauled himself off the couch. “I guess we’re going on a date.” Shoving down his distaste for the Main Street commercial pageant, he grabbed his coat and locked the front door. Agnes reached up and took his arm, as though she really was his date.
Out on the front step, snow was falling. As he made a mental note to shovel and salt, Karma walked up the steps, bundled in a parka.
Bill frowned. “What are you doing here?” She had the next three days off.
Karma shrugged, smiling. “Same as you. Riding the Christmas bus.” She winked at Agnes.
“Hey, what is this? Some sort of conspiracy?”
“Yep.” Karma took his other arm. “Hurry, or we’ll be late!” The two of them led Bill down the steps, where a crowd of people waited under the streetlight.
Bill’s three drunks, Bob, Ramon, and Ivan, smiled crookedly at him in the gentle snow. The six Montoyas shouted and grappled, clearing a slushy spot of mud on the sidewalk. Mariana hurried up, late as usual, and even the family who’d checked in today because Best Western was full gave him a shy wave.
Bill snorted and tried to look gruff. “So, we’re having ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ on a bus?”
“Not exactly,” Karma answered. “You might have noticed that Agnes asked you a time or two if you’d like to ride.”
“A time or two, yeah.”
“Well, she took up a collection. Then everyone wanted to go, but not everyone could afford it, so she—”
“She?” Bill interrupted. Agnes’ checks scarcely covered her room and the little food she ate.
“Okay, we helped out.”
“Too late!” The bus roared up, flinging dirty slush, and everyone scrambled aboard the top deck, which was fortunately covered. No one would freeze, and the Montoyas couldn’t pitch each other overboard. A group of laughing college kids fell silent as Bob and Ramon collapsed into the seat behind them, and a well-dressed mother hurried three well-bundled children down the stairs to the lower level, glancing anxiously back to make sure no one from the Hotel Williams followed them. Shaking his head, Bill stepped aside for them and helped Agnes down the narrow aisle.
Agnes plopped herself down beside Bill. Then she gave him a toothless grin, removed her own glasses, and tapped Bill’s.
Bill jerked his head back. “What? Why?” The bus left the hotel and turned back toward the business sector, passing three pawnshops, a Salvadoran restaurant, and two bars. Then they entered the “historic” section, where upscale shops sold the toys, clothes, and gadgets no one at the Hotel Williams could afford. Christmas lights covered the trees and outlined details on the stately old buildings.
The Montoyas started in on a new fight, and Ivan’s whisky-infused breath surrounded Bill’s head like a fog.
Bill set his jaw to endure the ride, but Agnes’ reproachful gaze, vulnerable and childlike without her glasses, reminded him he was here on her dime. “Okay, sweetheart. You win.” He took off his bifocals and looked out the window over her shoulder.
It was still Main Street. If he squinted, he could read the signs.
Agnes whacked his shoulder. “The lights,” she croaked. “Look at the lights.”
So Bill looked. Without his glasses, the Christmas lights, traffic lights, and street lights had grown into glowing orbs, twinkling slightly with the falling snow. Bill leaned toward the window. The lights were so thick that their round auras overlapped, creating a single, multicolored glow punctuated by fuzzy pinpoints of light—and no shadows. Even the garish store windows seemed to shine now, rather than glare.
Bill discovered his jaw hanging open and hastily closed it. Karma grinned from the seat in front of him. “Great, huh?”
“How do you know?” Karma didn’t wear glasses.
Mariana also turned around, and Bill, leaning forward, saw they both had their eyes crossed.
“‘From a Distance,’ it’s not so bad,” Karma murmured.
Bill looked out the window as the bus passed the glowing library. With the lights melded, the darkness receded into the background. “No, it’s not.” They rode in silence for a while.
“Wait a minute,” Bill said. Karma turned around. “Does this mean Bette Midler was right?”
“Of course not!” She grinned. “But Agnes was.”