The Cliffside, Twelfth of June; a short story

By Ron Prichard

They say ghosts haunt this old hotel, but I think it’s just the sea breeze.

You can hear the waves down below, far beneath the clifftops. Erosion is part of that decay, and someday the cliff and this hotel will be claimed by the sea. It might take a thousand years, but what is that in the time span of a world where everything is literally dying?

Sorry to sound so gloomy. It’s not this place. I like this place. I might stay here forever.

My room is on the third floor, with a balcony overlooking the ocean. Nice enough if a little tight, the way rooms in old clapboard hotels built before the turn of the century tend to be.

The last century I mean, 1900. I lose track.

Not a huge hotel, 100 or so rooms, but perched on magnificent land high above where the grand Columbia meets the sea.

The gloom is something I brought with me. It’s why I came here alone. It’s why I’m in no hurry to leave.

They’d touched my room, 4012, not long before, new tile and a lot of white paint, even on the should-be-natural-wood picture rails and window frames. Still had the original windows, which were rightly preserved. But the creak of aging means that means they rattle in the wind.

The furniture is older and the bed squeaks. Loudly enough that the neighbors sometimes complain, when the place is full. The rooms near mine tend to book up first.

Our wing is the one in the brochures that market the Cliffside as a haunted hotel.

June 12. I have a history on June 12. So does the hotel, and it gets a bit crowded. A couple of times they’ve even double-booked people into my room, and I’ve had to throw a fit at those people and the front desk.

I guess this place isn’t run well. So many incidents. Fewer and fewer guests.

The place is relatively quiet today. I wander down to the first floor and the lobby, and then past the dining room, where a handful of tourists are having breakfast. Takes a certain daring to spend the night anymore, or so they say.

The lights are flickering; old wiring. I fiddle with the switches. Ah well, it’s what the tourists pay for.

There’s a section of the lobby where there’s a scale model of the hotel, made out of wood, hand-constructed in the distant past. Under glass, sitting on the top of a cliff made out of clay and porcelain and fake matte green grass.

Photos line the walls. Two presidents visited here, to crowds and fanfare. Other photos show more difficult times. One wing took in wounded war veterans after WWI, and they say many of them never made it out.

That’s when the haunted stories began. Things seen by feverish young men, and young men who left their souls.

Before that, early in its history, the young hotel had become a popular spot for weddings, and there were many photos of lavish ceremonies in springs and Junes.

One was the centerpiece here, in an elaborate frame. A famous story. Joanne Westwood, just 18, a beautiful but mousy woman made rich when her parents passed away while she was still in her teens. She married an older man, a politician.

Somehow he’d managed to take control of most of her wealth before dumping her. They say he’d planned it from the start. She returned seven years later, divorced, spent her last dollars for the room, or so the stories said.

She threw herself off the cliff right below the window of my room.

She looks so happy in the wedding photos. I like to look at them way too closely, to run my fingers across her face, to try to feel any hint of suspicion that might have been caught by the chemical photo process. I hate to think she’d been completely taken in.

I like to touch a lot of the photos, actually. I suppose I sometimes leave them askew. Let the guests blame the ghosts.

Anyway, the ghost stories trace back to her. She’s the showcase haunting. Some guests claim they’ve seen her in the ballroom. That three-story tall space is usually locked, but there’s glass all around, and you can see into it from several spaces in the hotel.

The few times I thought I might have seen her, she’s been crossing the lobby to the ballroom. She’s always wearing the gown, from her wedding day. It’s like death makes the bad memory disappear and freezes you in a happier place.

I’d love to dance with her someday.

The indoor saltwater pool is a nice place to spend the day. Art deco tile and lots of poolside lounge chairs. A bit humid inside, and often almost a fog from the water. Makes it easy to watch people, and no one ever notices me.

If they felt like they were being watched, that was OK. They paid for that feeling.

I keep an eye out. Parents are way too lax with kids around pools. I’ve been in the water when a couple have nearly died.

There was one, maybe six. Kicking like mad. I tried to lift her, grabbed her ankle. She took a while to float free and surface. They had to pump the water from her lungs.

Families don’t come here much anymore.

I should tell you why I’m here, and why I’ve extended my trip.

Her name was Allison, and she was just flat cool. A beatnik out of time, hair dyed black and clothes out of a gypsy caravan. Wanted to be a writer like her friends Diane and Cassidy, but she didn’t have the commitment. Neither did I.

We both got more normal careers and became grown-ups. So we decided to get married.

For our honeymoon we decided on this haunted hotel by the rugged coast. Romantic in a Wuthering Heights kind of way. A little pricey, but I put a week’s reservation on credit without much thought.

Nonrefundable, like a lot of life. You don’t get second chances.

It might have been the hoopla of the event that bothered her. That might be why she fled.

We had intended to do it small, a few friends in the woods. Her nicest, blackest dress and me in jeans with maybe a starched white tuxedo shirt. But her mom thought this was her daughter going normal. It was a chance to dye her hair something other than black and help her put on pink nail polish.

She walked Allison through the white-gown process, tasted wedding cake, picked out the church. I was OK with it all, and it seemed like Allison was into it. I mean, I was only OK with it because it seemed like Allison was into it. And her family was doing all the work.

Shoot, in most of life an American male’s job is really just to shave and show up.

Three days before. June 9. I got a call from her father. It was off.

I didn’t know why. I was cut off. Finally gave up calling. I came here and checked in. Didn’t want to waste the reservation money.

By now I guess I might never know why it ended. I came here to put it out of my misery, to put it all behind me. And it is all over. I ended it all. Cut off.

I like to roam the gardens in the afternoon. Tall hedges and gravel paths that weave along the cliffside from the hotel down toward the highway.

I make sure no one ever sees me. I want to be alone, and I don’t want to intrude on anyone else. I’m sure they sometimes hear the crunch of footsteps on gravel, or the rustling of leaves.

Other times I stay quiet and out of sight, and spy on conversations. Or on people talking on phones, or to themselves. The latter are the best. Some I think would like to meet me; they’re as lonely as I am, even if they don’t know it.

If they’re not quite ready to join me here, though, that’s OK. We all go in our time.

I usually visit the bar late. Might be a person or two at a table, and a server wrapping up. The bartender I like, he says he’s been there from the opening.

He tells stories. There was the young mother in a room near mine, panicked from seeing something horrible. Took an hour to calm her back into her room. Now he thinks it was just the fever; hit suddenly, and neither she nor the baby made it.

“They blamed the ghosts,” he told me. “But that wasn’t not fair. She saw what she saw because of the fever.”

And there was the kitchen fire a year after the hotel opened. Limited damage. But the staff’s rooms were right above the kitchen, and four succumbed to the smoke.

“Dales, James, Adam. None of them even really wanted to be here,” he said. “I never wanted to leave.”

I know how he feels. I keep extending my stay. Ultimately I decided to just stop calling until I was ready. I still ring the front desk sometimes, but I hang up before anyone picks up.

I take the smoky martini in hand and walk out to the cliffside patio. You can get pretty close to the edge here. It’s a somewhat legendary place where unrequited loves end in a long dive. There are at least four on record, and rumors the hotel covered up a few more.

Honestly, there are easier ways to go. A headfirst dive into the shallow end of the indoor pool would do it. Or just a few martinis for blood flow, a hot bath and a straight razor bought from the hotel shop.

Be sure and shut the water off first. Or it makes a terrible mess. There should be signs.

June 12 always comes in hard. That was going to be our day.

And not just 4 p.m., when I was supposed to be getting married. The morning, which was to be Bloody Mary time with my friends to get past our anticipated hangovers. Noon, when we were supposed to assemble in our rooms.

By 3 we would have been in tuxes and headed down the hill to a little long-abandoned church. Evening, six, seven, eight, we would have been drinking up here. Reception and post-reception.

And eventually she and I to the room.

Instead I skipped breakfast and drank by the pool. Roamed the gardens. Walked to the cliff at 4 and contemplated that painful way out. Finally ate something in the restaurant. I don’t recall what. I eat mainly so I can hold down more drinks.

Stopped at the hotel store for a bottle of something strong, and for toiletries. Bored. Maybe I’d take a hot bath and a shave.

June 12s are my worst days and probably will be forever. But I like spending my days at the Cliffside. They’re simple. I’ve fallen into a routine.

Near midnight I like to pour a drink from a bottle in my room and shuffle up to the tight quarters of the fourth story.

Dormers break the roofline on the fourth, and in one there’s a small, comfortable nook of a room. It sits just above the lobby, and you can look down on the portico as cars arrive late.

I try to make sure no one sees me. The fourth floor is shut down and off limits, so I shouldn’t be here.

 In fact, the hotel is mostly shut down these days. The ghost tourists are about the only visitors, and they mostly come on the days terrible things happened at the hotel.

Days like June 12.

The view looks off in the distance to the closest city, down the hill and across the river. A small city, but pretty lights at night. Don’t know when I was last there, but it has grown. Don’t really care if I return. I’m comfortable here.

I leave the lights out, drink and stare. I often light up a cigarette, though I mostly kicked that habit years ago.

Sometimes I pull an old rocker over to the window when I’m tired of standing. Standing watch.

It’s usually quiet but I do get surprised sometimes, when a rare guest or tourist arrives in the late night just below, or a late-working groundskeeper decides to look up.

I try to make sure they don’t see me. They might see the spark off my cigarette, or the chair still rocking in the upstairs window.

They probably write it off to a ghost.