The Pale Man – Intermediate Level

I have not yet met the man in Room 212. I do not even know his name. He never eats in the hotel restaurant, and I never see him downstairs. We did not speak on the three occasions when we passed by each other, although we nodded politely. I should like very much to get to know him better. It is lonely in this boring hotel. With the exception of the aged lady down the corridor, the man in Room 212 and I are the only long-term guests. However, I should not complain, for total quiet is exactly what the doctor ordered for me.

I wonder if the man in Room 212 has also come here for a rest. He is so very pale. Yet I cannot believe that he is ill. His pale skin does not appear to be that of a sick man. He looks like a man enjoying the best of health. He is tall and straight. He walks quickly and with a straight back, like someone who plays a lot of sport. His unnatural color is no doubt something he was born with. If it wasn’t, he would quickly turn brown under the burning summer sun.

He must have traveled here by car. He certainly was not on the train that brought me, and checked in to the hotel only a short time after my arrival. I had briefly rested in my room and was walking down the stairs when I met him coming up with his bag. It is odd that the old bellboy did not show him to his room.

It is odd, too, that, with so many empty rooms in the hotel, he should have chosen Room 212 at the far end of corridor. The building, which is three stories high, is long and narrow. The rooms are all on the east side as the west wall is up against the building next door. The corridor is long and dark. The walls give off an unpleasant smell, and the electric lights shine so weakly that it looks like a tomb. When I saw this corridor, I demanded being given Room 201. This is at the front and looks toward the south. The room clerk, a disagreeable man with a Hitler mustache, did not want to let me have it. Usually it is reserved for his more profitable short-term guests. I fear that my stubborn demand for the room has made him an enemy.

If only I had been as assertive thirty years ago! I should now be a full professor instead of an assistant with a bad case of nerves. I still feel hurt from the manner in which the president of the university told me that I needed a vacation. He made it sound as if I had no say in the matter, but no doubt acted in my best interests. All of the people who have controlled my poor life have done the same.

Oh, well, the summer’s rest will probably do me a lot of good. It is pleasant to be away from the university. There is something about not seeing graduate student faces that makes me very happy .

If only it were not so lonely! I must come up with a way of meeting the pale man in Room 212. Perhaps the room clerk can arrange matters.

******

I have been here exactly a week. If there is a friendly person in this sad little town, he has escaped my notice. Although the people in the shops accept my money in a nice enough way, they refuse to enter into even the most simple conversations. I am afraid that I could never be accepted here unless I had family who have lived in the town for the last hundred and fifty years.

Although the people treat me coldly, I have frequently gone out. In the back of my mind I have been hoping that I might meet the pale man in Room 211. I have been wondering why he moved from Room 212. There is certainly little advantage in coming only one room nearer to the front. I noticed the change yesterday when I saw him coming out of his new room.

We nodded again, and this time I thought I detected an evil satisfaction in his dark, serious eyes. He must know how much I would like to talk with him, yet his manner says that he does not wish to talk to me. If he wants me to make the first move, he can go to the devil. I am not the sort to run after anybody. That is why I haven’t questioned the room clerk about his mysterious guest. I don’t like his unfriendly manner and the way he never takes the time to talk.

******

I wonder where the pale man takes his meals. I have stopped eating at the hotel restaurant and started going to the restaurants outside. At each I have asked about the man in Room 210. No one at any restaurant remembered his having been there. Perhaps he knows someone who lives in the town.

The pale man must be difficult to please, for he has again changed his room. I can’t understand what he is doing. If he wants so much to find a better room, why doesn’t he move to Room 202? This is the nearest available room to the front.

Perhaps I can make his difficulty in finding a good room an excuse for starting a conversation. “I see we are closer neighbors now,” I might say as we pass. But that would be such an unimaginative thing to say. I must wait for a better opportunity.

******

He has done it again! He is now staying in Room 209. I can’t stop wondering about his little game. I waste hours trying to understand its point. What possible reason could he have? I should think the hotel staff would be unhappy about having to prepare four rooms for a single guest. If the bellboy were not so old and could hear better, I would ask him. At present I feel too weak to attempt such an exhausting conversation.

I am very interested in the pale man’s next move. He must either miss a room or remain where he is, for the other long-term guest, the old lady, lives in Room 208. She has not left her room since I have been here, so I imagine that she has no plans to do so.

I wonder what the pale man will do. I will wait for his decision with nervous excitement. After all, I have so little else to do.

******

Well, the mysterious guest was not forced to remain where he was, nor did he have to miss a room. The lady in Room 208 simplified matters by conveniently dying. No one knows the cause of her death, but it is generally thought to be old age. She was buried this morning. I was among the curious few who attended her funeral. When I returned home, I was in time to see the pale man leaving her room. Already he has moved in.

He favored me with a smile, the meaning of which I have tried to understand without success. I am sure that he meant it to have some significance. He acted as if there were a secret between us that I should know. But, then, perhaps his smile was meaningless after all and only ambiguous by chance, like that of the Mona Lisa.

******

My man of mystery is now staying in Room 207, and I am not the least surprised. In fact, would have been surprised if he had not made the move. I have almost given up trying to understand his unusual ways. I do not know a single thing more about him than I knew the day he arrived. I wonder where he came from. There is something foreign about his manner which I cannot identify. I am curious to hear his voice. I like to imagine that he speaks the strange tongue of some far-away country. If only I could somehow get him into conversation! I wish that I had the smooth self-confidence of a college boy who can address himself to the most important people without feeling nervous. It is no wonder that I am only an assistant professor.

******

I am worried. This morning I woke up to find myself lying face downward upon the floor. I was fully clothed. I must have fallen exhausted there after I returned to my room last night.

I wonder if the problem with my nerves is more serious than I had thought. Until now I have not taken seriously the way people have looked worried when around me. For the first time I remember how the president held on to my hand a little too long when he said good-bye at the university. Obviously he never expected to see me alive again.

Of course I am not that unwell. However, I must be more careful. Thank heaven I have no dependents to worry about. I have not even a wife, for I was never willing to exchange the loneliness of a bachelor for the loneliness of a husband.

I can tell you honestly that the idea of dying does not frighten me. Thinking about life after death has always bored me. Whatever it is, or is not, I’ll try to get along.

I have been so busy talking about the sudden change in my health that I have forgotten to make note of a most extraordinary event. The pale man has done a surprising thing. He has moved three rooms nearer, all the way to Room 203. We are now very close neighbors. We shall meet more often, and my chances for getting to know him are now greater.

******

I have been unable to get out of bed over the last few days, and have had my food brought to me. I even called a local doctor, but I don’t think he knows much about medicine. He quickly looked me over as if he cared little whether I lived or died. Then he simply told me not to leave my room. For some reason he does not want me to climb stairs. For this bit of information he asked for ten dollars. As I directed him, he fished it out of my coat pocket. A pickpocket could not have done it better.

The doctor had not been gone long when I was visited by the room clerk. He suggested with a great show of kindly concern that I move to the local hospital. It was so modern and all that. With more firmness than I have been able to find in a long time, I made it clear that I was going to remain in the hotel. He left with a sad look on his face. The doctor must have stopped downstairs long enough to tell him a nice story. It is obvious that he is afraid I shall die in his best room.

The pale man is up to his old tricks. Last night, when I tried to walk down the hall, the door of Room 202 was open a little. Without thinking, I looked inside. The pale man sat in a chair lazily smoking a cigarette. He looked up into my eyes and smiled that strange, ambiguous smile that has so deeply puzzled me. I moved on down the corridor, quite annoyed. The whole mystery of what the man is doing is beginning to make me angry. It all seems so silly, and there can be be no reason for it.

I feel that I shall never meet the pale man. But, at least, I am going to learn his identity. Tomorrow I shall send for the room clerk and question him about it.

******

I know now. I know the identity of the pale man, and I know the meaning of his smile.

Early this afternoon I called the room clerk to my room.

“Please tell me,” I asked sharply, “who is the man in Room 202?”

The clerk stared at me as if he had no idea what I meant.

“You must be mistaken. That room is empty.”

“Oh, but there is,” I said angrily. “I myself saw the man there only two nights ago. He is a tall, handsome man with dark eyes and hair. He is unusually pale. He checked in the day that I arrived.”

The hotel man looked at me in disbelief, as if I were trying to trick him in some way.

“But I am telling you there is no such person in the hotel. And as for his checking in when you did, you were the only new guest we had that day.”

“What? Why, I’ve seen him twenty times! First he had Room 212 at the end of the corridor. Then he kept moving toward the front. Now he’s next door in Room 202.”

The room clerk threw up his hands.

“You’re crazy!” he exclaimed, and I saw that he meant what he said.

I shut up at once and told him to leave. After he had gone, I heard him checking the pale man’s door. There is no doubt that he believes the room to be empty.

Thus it is that I can now understand the events of the past few weeks. I now can see the significance of the death in Room 207. I even feel partly responsible for the old lady dying. After all, I brought the pale man with me. But it was not I who fixed his path. Why did he chose to come closer to me room after room through the length of this dark, depressing hotel? Why did his path cross the door of the woman in Room 207? Those mysteries I can not explain.

I suppose I should have guessed his identity when he moved three rooms nearer the night I fell unconscious upon the floor. In a single night of triumph he advanced until he was almost to my door.

He will be coming soon to take over this room, his final goal. When he comes, I shall at least be able to return his smile of grim recognition.

For now, I have only to wait behind my locked door.

******

The door slowly opens…