It’s not supposed to be this quiet. The lights are all off except for the ones over the exits, but there isn’t anyone left here who needs them. It’s just me, and I can’t leave.
They turned off all the machines, too. No more flashing lights, spinning dials, or “7s” lining up in a row. There’s no sound of coins clinking in a metal tray, no cards shuffling, no dice tumbling. There’s no shouting, no laughter, no ice chinking in cocktail glasses.
The only sound is the rain and the wind that sometimes rattles the windows. At least when the hurricane hits it won’t be quiet anymore.
I move through the darkened casino. On the wall near the elevators, there are a series of framed photographs. They’re pictures of the hotel going all the way back to the 20s. But it’s not Atlantic City’s glamorous past that draws me. There is one picture I want to see. Taken on June 17, 1961, it shows the hotel lobby with men in three-piece suits and women in evening dresses going out for a night on the town, but in the corner, a girl in a blue skirt and a white blouse is sitting in a chair. She’s resting her chin on her hand. The other hand is absentmindedly twirling a lock of her brown hair. She seems to be gazing at something out of the frame, or maybe she’s just lost in thought. Her name is Jenny.
She’s the last person I talked to before I died.
I was working at the hotel that summer. She was staying there with her parents. We met for the first time earlier in the day at the pool. Everyone else was either lounging with a cocktail or splashing in the water. There were some boys about my age posing and flexing for the girls, who were all encouraging it with their giggles and demure glances—all except for her. She was reading a book.
I caught the title as I passed by her chair. “Catcher in the Rye,” I said, “That’s one of my favorites. Man that Salinger’s a genius with words.”
She peered up at me over her sunglasses. “You’ve read it?”
I laughed. “You sound shocked.”
She glanced at the group still preening in the pool. “I don’t know many boys who read.”
“Well, I don’t know many girls who read,” I replied, “but I’m always happy to meet one. My name’s Danny DaCosta.”
She smiled, flashing her blue eyes. “Jenny Wellington. Maybe you could teach those boys a thing or two about impressing a girl.”
Across the pool, I caught my boss’ eye. He was scowling at me. “Hey, I gotta go,” I said to her, “but you know I don’t always work here. Maybe I’ll see you out on the boardwalk.”
“Maybe,” she said before lowering her eyes back to the pages of the book.
I don’t remember much about the rest of that day. If I knew it was going to be my last, maybe I would have paid more attention. I didn’t really expect to run into her on the boardwalk, but that night I saw her staring out toward the dark ocean, twirling her hair in her fingers.
“Hi, there,” I said.
Startled, she looked up. “Oh, hi.” She scanned my outfit. I wasn’t wearing my pool boy uniform anymore. “Going out?”
I shook my head. “Nah, just going home. My parents are expecting me for dinner.”
“So are mine. Actually, I’m late.”
She returned to staring out at the blackness. I paused. There was more she wasn’t saying.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, everything’s fine,” she replied.
I raised an eyebrow. “You sure?”
She sighed. “It’s just, you know, I was reading that book, and sometimes I think Holden is a big idiot who just needs to get slapped, and sometimes I think he’s on the right track. I don’t know. Do you ever feel like your whole life’s been decided for you, like you don’t get any say at all?”
I thought about it for a moment. “Yeah, sometimes I do, like when I see those guys in the pool, not having to work, acting like fools, and I wonder why I’m stuck busting my rear every day. But I’m working for something. I’ve got another year of school, and then I’m going into the army. They’ll pay for me to go to college. I’m going to be the first one in my family to get a college degree. I think the key is always having something to work for.”
She smiled again, and then she did something I’ll never forget. She kissed me on the cheek. “Thank you for that, Danny. You really could teach those guys at the pool a thing or two. Maybe I’ll see you there tomorrow.”
She turned and walked away, toward the hotel. Just before she went inside, she looked back. I waved. She waved back, and then she was gone. I never joined the army. I never went to college. I never even made it home. A car driven by someone too sloshed to see straight ran me over as I was walking.
I don’t know why I’m stuck at the hotel. I gave up trying to figure it out decades ago. I don’t remember a lot about the days after it happened. The first clear memory I do have is looking for Jenny at the pool. I looked for her year after year. I waited for her to come through the doors into the lobby. Finally I realized enough time had passed that she was old enough to be a grandmother, and chances were I wouldn’t recognize her even if she did come back. She probably married one of those boys who doesn’t read, someone her parents approved of.
Then about fifteen years ago, they put up these photographs. When I saw her, sitting in the lobby, looking exactly like I remember, all I could do was stare. I visit the picture every day. But the hurricane is about to hit, and I’m not sure I’ll get a chance to see it again. As a ghost, or whatever I am, I can’t touch or pick anything up. If I could rip the photo off the wall and take it to one of the higher floors where it might be safe, I would, but I can’t.
So I’ll stay here and stare at it until it gets washed away in the storm, and I’ll say one last good-bye.