My room on the 19th floor of the Palmer House in Chicago faces the open air, and then a mirror of brick. Out the window, across a gap of thirty feet, lies another wing of the hotel and another bank of windows, exactly like mine. Each has sheer curtains overlaid with heavier ones; some are open; some are closed. It's daylight outside, but gray. One of those days when it feels like the moon is shining rather than the sun. I turn and look at my room. It is a very nice room. I unpack my things and lay my books on the desk, then go out to dinner with friends. When I return, late, and look out the window, I see that some of the rooms across from me are occupied, others not; some have their curtains wide open, others half drawn. Two floors below me, brightly lit and curiously empty--not a piece of furniture in them that I can see--are two matching suites, each with its interior, connecting door slightly ajar. Curtains half open.
On the second night, when I come back late to my room, the two empty suites below me are the only ones with lights still blazing, their nakedness exposed. Everything else is darkness. Something else odd: the two interior doors, each a mirror of the other, that had been slightly ajar are now wider open. Well, probably work is being done in those two rooms, I tell myself. I'd read in the hotel's history that in one hundred and thirty-three years--it is the oldest hotel in the country--its doors have never closed, and that to accomplish this any work on its floors must be done in stages.
The next day, at mid-day, I look out. No one. Nothing. No movement. Only the interior, connecting doors are a little wider open, as if they are growing braver.
On the third night the lights across and below me still burn steady and bright. It occurs to me that someone must have decided these two rooms are better left empty and illuminated all the time. I decide to go and see for myself. But the Palmer House is a maze--1,600 rooms along white and gold halls that angle and twist and turn and wrap, so that you have to memorize your way, or else reach for the numbers like Braille. I guess with my feet through the windowless quiet to where I think the rooms ought to be. But I can't really be certain. One narrow hallway does seem more deserted than the rest--none of the usual human debris, no Do Not Disturb signs clinging to the door knobs, no silver room-service dish covers littering the floor, no newspapers left untouched by secret lovers who have stayed, murmuring, in bed all day.
I go back to my room. On the floor beside my bed is the book I'd left on the desk--I was certain I'd left it there, but maybe I had casually knocked it to one side as I went out. I can be clumsy. It lies face down on the carpet. I pick it up and read:
The end of roving. Though the heart be still as loving and the moon be still as bright. Who would have thought it would come to an end so soon and so suddenly: the roving, the loving?
The next day, still gray, the snow begins to fall, as if the moon is being pawed at, called back.
Photo by Bruce Barone