Kasumi was young, but she lived in an old world. She worked in an old hotel with old furniture, with an old hotel manager constantly barking at her back. There were old elevators, riding up and down next to old, unused staircases, old carpets along old halls that were decorated with old pieces of art. This one piece, hanging there while Kasumi waited for the elevator, was The Mona Lisa. She hung there because the hotel manager liked old, western art. He said the old eastern masters inspired the western civilizations long ago, and that the same wave of inspiration was coming back again, the eastern mind through western workmanship.
“Like a tsunami,” Kasumi had once said, but the manager had leered at her, then proceeded behind his desk where he smiled his fake smiles at the hotel guests arriving and departing.
The reason Kasumi remembered The Mona Lisa was that she had a name. She wasn’t some obscure landscape or abstract picture with titles no one remembered, but an actual woman with an actual name.
Kasumi remembered something like that.
Riding up the elevator, anxious that no guests would come in and see her, Kasumi thought of her mother, and how she had been beaten for stealing. Kasumi’s father had told her how her mother’s act had brought disgrace to the entire family, and that stealing was an abhorrent act born of pride, from which all bad acts came. Kasumi’s father was much like the hotel manager, and she often got confused that they were really the same person. Both were old, of towering height, and big mouths dangling hysterically along the bottom of their square jaws. Once, Kasumi had brought two candies that a couple had left in their room for her, and the manager had scolded her in front of the rest of the staff, taking the candies into his office.
“Don’t you get paid?” he had shouted, slamming his hand against an old table. “There is only false pride to be had from this,” he said, and all Kasumi could think of was how often she had heard her father speak the exact words. Then, of course, she remembered her father was dead.
Coming out of the elevator and down the hall, Kasumi locked herself into room 1503. Kasumi was quick to do her routine. She started in the far end of the room, by the bed, and changed the sheets. Then she dusted off the surfaces all the way to the bathroom, cleaned the porcelain, the floors, removing all grime and hair and muck, and once done, she replaced all the towels and rolls of toilet paper. She left the room clean as she had left every other room in her life, and she made a little bow, as if thanking the room for its time. Afterwards, she proceeded into the next room and did it all over again.
Once she reached room 1506, she was more tired than usual. Her joints hurt, and she imagined rubbing away the cartilage between each bone with every swipe of a dustpan. The room was cleaner than usual, but still brimmed and packed. The couple that lived there had stayed a week, and they usually left late to go into town. Kasumi had tried guessing their occupations, their family ties. They had brought books that now littered the desk and nightstand, and Kasumi leaved through them. A part of her wanted to ransack through their packs, their suitcases, to get one little insight into a world outside the hotel. She wanted to smell their clothes, to wear it, to feel like she was some distant cousin, exotically married to some stranger, honeymooning in San Francisco or New Delhi or Paris.
Just then Kasumi found a book she hadn’t seen in the room before, and instead of dreaming of some impossible future, she was drawn into her past. Her eyes glinted at the golden title swung across the book’s cover.
The Grapes of Wrath
By John Steinbeck
She had read that book many times, hidden under the sheets of her dead mother’s bed, and every time her father found her, he had thrown her out, commanding her never to return, but it was the only time she didn’t listen, and she returned every night until her father finally hit her. A flat hand across the cheek.
The character Kasumi remembered best was Rose of Sharon and her selfless sacrifice. If Kasumi ever became a mother, she would be the same, and the day she hit her kids would be the last day of her life.
Remembering the story, Kasumi bit her nails, watching the unmade bed where she imagined the couple had been together that night. She let go of the dustpan and grabbed the book, nestling into the covers, beginning to read. She skipped to where she imagined her favorite parts were, reading it from cover to cover without even understanding a single one of the english words, and when she finished, she put the book back into its pile, ran through her routine, and left a clean room. She finished up the rest of the rooms, then headed back down, past the Mona Lisa, and home.
The next day, all Kasumi could think of was room 1506. She waited for the elevator, which was particularly slow that morning. The Mona Lisa looked down at her, frowning as if her smile had been replaced with a subtler one, but then the elevator doors swung open, and Kasumi ran inside. She went up to the fifteenth floor and straight to room 1506, where she found the book, crawled under the covers, and started reading.
She remembered how Tom Joad had gone to prison for killing another man, and how when her mother died, all Kasumi’s father could talk about was murder and the pride of the family and not taking anything, and Kasumi had stopped reading. She finished up the room, then did the rest of the day’s work and returned home.
The next morning, Kasumi went to room 1506 without even looking at the Mona Lisa. She locked herself into the room, took the book under the covers, and read. She thought of the story, and the crowded car, and how the Joads were on an impossible journey, and how her father had taken his own life after talking about how taking anything was a crime. The images in Kasumi’s mind slowly turned to dreams, and when she woke up, there was the hotel manager by the foot of the bed. Kasumi’s stomach tensed up, her blood pressed against each corner of her skin like taut elastics. She crawled out of bed and bowed deeply.
“Sumimasen,” she said.
The hotel manager slapped her, and she dropped the book to the floor. On the way down, in the elevator, she asked if she could have just one more day at the hotel to finish up her duties, and the hotel manager said he was alright with that.
The next day, opening the door to the room, Kasumi saw that the couple had left the hotel. The room was achingly empty, the white walls as if pushed from each other by some impossible pressure. She ran her fingers across the empty desk, seeing a note where the books had been. It said,
Kasumi took the note and put it in her pocket. Then, perhaps because she couldn’t help it, went to the bathroom, and stroked her hand over the cold porcelain as if cleaning it. She looked at her face in the mirror. There was a smile across her face that only really looked like a smile in the mirror. And lasted only the shortest of seconds.
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Vanja Artak is an astrophysicist from Aarhus, Denmark, where he teaches high school math and physics. He came to Denmark as a fugitive in 1993; and a lot of his stories are about the war-torn country of Yugoslavia, and about the struggle of being stuck between two cultures. His work has previously been published in the online literary magazines, Five on the Fifth, Chicago Literati, and The Molotov Cocktail.
Photo credit: Christina Salomon