Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Why I Live at the Albert Pike Hotel

Jennifer Horne


It has nothing to do with the P.O., or family disputes, or Eudora Welty, although I did know Eudora in her WPA photography days, and I don’t think she’d mind my bit of playfulness. I was working as the East Arkansas stringer for the Arkansas Gazette in those days, the only real Arkansas newspaper as far as I’m concerned, first paper founded west of the Mississippi, best in the west, too. She was taking pictures of people in shacks and I was covering a local election between two men whose fairly recent ancestors had called themselves owners of the fairly recent ancestors of the people in the shacks. We drank moonshine together at a black honky-tonk and told each other our maiden-lady secrets.

All that was before I married a Rotarian and became Respectable. Two children. Methodist Church. Sunday dinners. Volunteer work. Pearls. Gloves. Proper, mostly, in bed. Mrs. Harmony Carmichael, Lady. Of course everyone asks about his name, Harmony. Even he didn’t know the real reason for his name. Of course there was a story, there’s always a story: that his mother, being the church organist, named him for her favorite musical term. In which case, good thing it wasn’t Adagio or Forte. But once when his mother had had a glass of sherry at one of my luncheons, when she was up in Little Rock visiting, she told me that she had named him Harmony because he was her first boy after five girls and she had hoped that his birth would finally bring peace to her marriage, and to her marriage bed. By the time he was born, she was plumb wore out with trying, and her socks had lost their elastic after all those babies, if you know what I mean.

So Harmony it was, and Harmony he was. His life was dedicated to it. His courtroom was known for its quietness, and the reporters used to say you had to put your ear to the door to tell whether court was in session. Not only was there to be no yelling, not even a raised voice, and no untoward comments from either side, he frequently talked the litigants into settling their cases within the first hour of trial. “In a compromise,” he used to say, “we promise, together, and each gets some of what he wants. A beautiful word. Com-pro-mise.” Sometimes he would make the litigants repeat the word after him, if they were being particularly obstreperous.

I fell in love with him because despite his calm manner he was a powerful, I would even say passionate, man, and the contrast between his outer cool and his inner steam was too much to resist.

The only thing he insisted on was clean sheets every night. I kept the laundry busy washing and ironing and my maid busy changing them. Said he wouldn’t wear garments he’d worn the day before, why should he sleep in sheets he’d already slept in? Didn’t seem the same to me, but it was a small thing and I always had them changed by 10 a.m. And now that I live in the Albert Pike, I do enjoy fresh sheets every day, with no trouble to me. Guess I got used to it.

The Albert Pike. I came to live here ten years ago when Harmony died. Put the house on the market, sold it lock, stock, and barrel, and moved my clothes and personal items into a seventh-floor suite in the Albert Pike. It suits me. I can lunch at the City Club when I want to, shop at the downtown department stores, have coffee in the morning and a cocktail in the evening, and I never have to clean house or even do my own laundry, except of course my unmentionables.

Buddy, my son, though—acted like I was selling off the homeplace when I said I was getting rid of the house. “Where will we come for Christmas? What about the grandkids? How can you leave the house I grew up in? Where you and Papa were so happy?”

I said he was welcome to buy it if he wanted to, and that he and Becky, his sister, were welcome to take whatever furniture or china they wanted—better to go ahead and divide it up before I die and save all that nasty post-funeral squabbling (or pre-funeral skullduggery: I have known families where one or more members actually snuck into the house and took things while the rest of the family was at the viewing).

I did not tell him this, nor Becky, but I never liked that house. Harmony had bought it for me as a wedding present, so pleased with himself he could have burst, and I loved it because he loved it, but when he was gone I was done. It was a fine new bungalow then, with hardwood floors and big windows and a lot of open space from living room to dining room to kitchen, but it always felt sort of cramped to me, no place to go for privacy, and the houses on each side were in spitting distance of one another. You had to keep your curtains closed to dress or else you’d find yourself putting on a peep show. It did get better once the shrubbery grew up a bit, but I’d rather live out in the woods, like I grew up in, or an apartment. So the Albert Pike suits me fine.

But now it is to be sold. To Baptists, no less. Buddy says since it’s going to be a retirement home I should just stay put. But I can imagine it now: mandatory group sings, cheerful helpers, bad food. I love the Albert Pike: the polite, reserved staff, the Sunday dinners, the quiet, carpeted hallways, and I do not need to go into any rest home. I am only seventy and in full command of my faculties and my bladder.

Buddy and Becky put their heads together and offered to take me for six months each, which was decent of them to make the offer but I know they would’ve had two cows if I’d said yes, and besides I am not a piece of baggage to be moved hither and yon, at biyearly intervals.

No, I have to find a new home. And if I can just get over the upset-ness of having my very pleasant life uprooted, I am certain I will find something suitable. I could buy an apartment—I have the money—but I have sure gotten used to this hotel life. There’s not really anywhere else in Little Rock I could move to, though, and downtown is going down since they built the mall. A certain element has crept in, and it is not conducive to the safety of widows.

So I am considering the Arlington, in Hot Springs. It is a large, comfortable, elegant place, historic without being rundown, and only an hour from Little Rock and the children. Perhaps just the right distance, come to think of it. I have managed to minimize my volunteer duties by hotel living, but Buddy’s wife Cynthia thinks nothing of dropping the girls off for the afternoon when she needs to have her hair done or go shopping, and though they are nice enough children, I just am not equipped to entertain them for more than an hour or two.
I had Buddy drive me over to the Arlington last weekend, to talk to the manager. A suite is available, at a comparable rate, and I could have half-board for a modest sum. I never eat breakfast anyway, just coffee. It’s the only way I’ve kept my figure after all these years. Becky has just blown up, after the children, but I can still wear suits I bought thirty years ago.

Another thing I like about Hot Springs is that I can pick up with my clubs, which have chapters here as well: the PEO of course, the Arkansas Federation of Women’s Clubs—we call it the AFWC, and no doubt I can find a contract bridge set as well.

Buddy and I had a nice drive over to Hot Springs from Little Rock, talking about his job, the children, and so on. We stopped and bought peanut brittle for him to take home—I never touch it—and took a stroll along Bathhouse Row after visiting the Arlington. Even drank some fresh springwater, coming right out from underground.

“I could live to be a hundred drinking this water, if what they say is true!” I commented to Buddy.
He half-smiled, in that way that makes him look just like he did as a boy when he thought he was being patient with his silly mother.

“If you do that, there’ll be nothing left for us,” he said, kind of laughing.

“Left for you?” I said, a little pricking-up feeling beginning on the back of my neck.

“Well,” he said, looking off to one side at some crape myrtles that were just beginning to fade. “Our inheritance. What Papa left.”

“Buddy,” I said, “You know that your Papa left what he had to me, and that I am leaving what I have equally to you and Becky.”

“But what if you use it up?” he said, finally getting to the nub.

“What if I do? Are you saying you would rather have me die, or live in the poorhouse, just so you and your sister can inherit more money from me?” I was mad, and mad on top of it that Buddy was spoiling this trip to Hot Springs, which had worried me more than anyone knew.
Buddy winced. He could see he had gone too far. “No, Mama, of course not,” he wheedled. “It’s just, Cynthia’d like to move to a bigger house, and there’ll be college for the girls, and before that, cotillion and dresses and so forth, and it seems we have it coming to us, I’m sure that’s what Papa meant, for you to stay in the house and live a modest life and then leave the rest to us, instead of spending it all on hotel living.”

Well, I never!

I said, “You may drive me home now, and we will speak no more of it.”

We did, and it was an icy drive in August. Buddy started to speak several times but never did, my demeanor being as hard as I could make it, and I could tell he was thinking that the thing to do was just let me cool down and then I would see reason. One thing I hate is when I feel I am being managed, and that is just what he was doing—managing me. He had got over the hard part and was relieved, I could tell, despite the discomfort of it.

When I move to the Arlington, as I have really just about made up my mind to do, I will drive my own car, even though I had thought to sell it before leaving Little Rock. The porters at each hotel will help me with my cases, and I will tip them for their services. God forbid I ask anything of my son again. Ingratitude, thy name is Buddy.

Now that I am reconciled to leaving the Albert Pike, and Little Rock along with it, I am thoroughly pleased to be moving to the Arlington. Hotel life suits me. It is decorous. It is quiet. And at any time of day, you may put out the little sign that says, “Privacy, please.”

***

Jennifer Horne grew up in Arkansas and has lived in Alabama since 1986. She is the editor of Working the Dirt: An Anthology of Southern Poets (2003) and co-editor, with Wendy Reed, of All Out of Faith: Southern Women and Spirituality (2006). She is the poetry book review editor for First Draft, the journal of the Alabama Writers Forum. Her poetry publications include a chapbook, Miss Betty’s School of Dance (1997), and poems in numerous journals, mostly southern.

© Jennifer Horne

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012