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A Trace Story by Rodger Jacobs

Baby Maria

short fiction
by Rodger Jacobs

Trace popped a Doxepin and slowly began to dress. He opted for jeans and an NYPD T-shirt but he had to throw a jacket over the short-sleeved shirt because of the bright red psoriatic lesions on his wrists and forearms.

“No need to scare the citizens,” he muttered as he pulled on a pair of black sneakers with a great and painful effort. Tying the shoes was the hardest part – gripping those laces in his cracked and bleeding fingers – and he vowed to buy shoes with Velcro laces next time.

He completed the ensemble – baseball cap, black leather gloves, walking stick – and started out the door for the two mile walk to the pharmacy on Brand Boulevard. He had a fresh refill of pain meds to pick up.

Trace had to rely on the cane frequently on the walk back to the residential hotel as his left ankle was swelling from the effects of psoriatic arthritis. Passing through the lobby, he saw a lone tenant waiting for the main elevator. Trace knew her. She was an Extended Stays regular and a certified loon. He had no desire to be trapped in an elevator with the old woman for five floors; in fact, he was in a downright antisocial mood and desired nothing more than to be back in his room with his swollen foot elevated.

He opted for the elevators on the southwest side of the hotel, the freight cars usually frequented by the housekeeping and maintenance staff. Trace kept himself on good terms with most of the hotel staff. A few of the housekeepers – all of them Hispanic with limited English skills – were disgusted by the bloody sheets and mounds of shed skin to be found in his bed every day but they still treated him with respect and he always tried to return the favor. It was most important for Trace to stay in the good graces of the front desk staff, the young men and women who controlled the mail, package and messenger deliveries, maintenance requests, and overall security.

At the southwest elevator Trace found Raphael waiting with an empty luggage cart. A short, bearded, and muscular Mexican-American who spoke English in heavily-accented halting gasps, Raphael had been working at the hotel for as long as Trace could remember. “Raffi,” as Trace called him, was the overworked concierge, which in Extended Stays Speak meant he was the bellhop, airport shuttle driver, messenger, and room service waiter.

“Hello, Raffi,” Trace greeted through a painful grimace. He knew that now was the time to ask. Raffi would know. Raffi would be able to tell him what the story was behind that picture at the front desk. Every day for the last week, whenever Trace went to the lobby to pick up his mail, there was a framed photo of a beautiful baby girl, dark eyes shining, a smile as wide as can be. Next to the framed photograph was a small shoebox done up in Easter colors – pink and green and pale blue – with a small slot cut into the top of the box. In neat calligraphy on the front of the box someone wrote:

IN MEMORY OF BABY MARIA
ALL DONATIONS GRATEFULLY ACCEPTED

Someone – one of the front desk staff clearly – had lost a child. A baby. Trace knew it would tear him apart no matter who it was but he was too frightened to ask any of the desk staff for fear that he might accidentally ask the recipient of such awesome grief.

“What’s the story with the baby, Raffi?”

“You know Graciela?” Raffi said.

Trace indeed knew Graciela. She was a kind and round-faced Mexican-American in her twenties. She was shy and soft spoken and had been a great help to Trace on numerous occasions. She and her husband, Raffi explained, had enjoyed Christmas vacation in Mexico with their two-year old daughter, their only child. There was an accident on the drive back to Los Angeles. Graciela escaped with a few broken bones and her husband also survived.

“But the baby, she died,” Raffi said. “In the hospital, they gave Graciela the baby in a small box.”

“Jesus Christ,” Trace hissed and slumped against the wall just as the elevator doors slid open.

Back in his room, Trace rested for a few hours. He had no looming deadlines and nothing on his calendar that week except for a get-together with some colleagues at the Tam O’Shanter and a meeting with a movie executive. When it looked like the swelling in his foot had gone down enough for him to make his nightly trek to the corner market for beer and a pack of smokes he pulled on his jacket and paused to scrawl a note on the back of one of his business cards.

“I grieve for you and your husband,” Trace wrote carefully. The pen was painful to grip in his swollen fingers and he hoped the words would come out legible. “I know it’s not much but please fill in your name on the enclosed check and accept with my great sadness for your loss.”

Trace wrote a check for $25, folded it neatly, and used a paper clip to attach the card to the check.

The framed photograph of the happy baby girl greeted him at the desk once more. Now there was a name attached, a brief life attached, a goddamn tragedy attached. He slipped the check and business card out of his jacket pocket and tried to slide the clipped items into the slot in the top of the donation box but it was too small. He removed his gloves, exposing his gnarled and blotched hands to the young clerk in front of him, and tried once again.

“I can’t seem to get this into the box,” Trace complained. “Do you have an envelope?”

The girl presented Trace with an envelope and he unceremoniously deposited the check and card and handed it to her.

“Would you just make sure that Graciela gets this, please?”

“Did you put your name on it so she knows who it’s from?”

“Does it really matter?” Trace said. He leaned on his cane and started for the exit.

*****

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