The Innkeeper’s Daughter
by Nathaniel Johnson
part 1 of 2
Sarah Little took charge of the White Cliffs Inn the year that her mother, Patsy, finally died at the Southern Maine Medical Center in Kennebunk. Granted a temporary reprieve by the latest technological advances in pulmonary resuscitation, Patsy hung on eleven months beyond her expected death date because she was strong — and so goddamn stubborn.
Short, stout and lively, Patsy Little was one tough monkey, insisting that things always be done right and accepting no excuses. After all, running a great inn properly was damn difficult and Patsy knew right well that her witless daughter was hardly qualified to take over after she croaked. So, when the hooded man carrying a large scythe first arrived looking for Patsy she told him to bugger off; she had an inn to run.
To their visitors, Patsy and Stephen Little were the personification of old world graciousness and charm; guests were treated like family which was the reason so many looked forward to their return each summer. White Cliffs was about long afternoons soaking up those bodice-ripping novels, teary reunions, Maine lobsters, croquet and parasols on the great lawn, picnics on the verandah, walks along the cliffs at daybreak and the expectation of a fiery sunset during martinis and margaritas, all accompanied by the ever-present deep-breathing of the sea.
Patsy’s late husband Stephen, a true gentleman, didn’t agree with his wife’s harsh approach to innkeeping but chose to let her steer the ship anyway so he could spend his time trading stories and mingling with his martini-sipping visitors. Stephen loved his daughter Sarah and wanted her to carry on the family tradition. Upon his death it came as no surprise to Sarah that he had left half the property to his wife and half to her.
“Soft as a grape,” Patsy moaned. “Should have had his head examined before he wrote that will.”
“Dad always said I’d be a great innkeeper,” argued Sarah during one of their frequent battles.
“Harrgh,” replied Patsy, smothering a heaving cigarette cough into her handkerchief. “You never showed any interest in White Cliffs before Dad died. Spent all your time with your brats and that moron you married.”
“Mother — Dan is a bright guy.”
“Then how come he lost your savings in that half-baked land deal?”
“That was his advisor’s—”
“Never trust advisors — all they want is that fee, trust me. Fire all of them!” Patsy Little took no prisoners.
Each spring, Patsy walked the grounds with Stan — now in his seventies and more a family heirloom than a caretaker — and together they planned the annual maintenance. That’s how Patsy did business and that’s why for nearly forty years, White Cliffs attracted so many happy campers who returned faithfully every summer like the nesting swans across the bay.
Some married at White Cliffs and some had their ashes scattered on the shore. Others sat quietly on the verandah reading all day and a few just stayed drunk. It wasn’t posh but it was home away from wherever they came from and that suited just about everyone.
Eventually, Sarah got the lot — twelve bedrooms in the Manor House plus three small cottages, all with superb views of the Atlantic and everything in tip-top condition, despite the annual brutality of Maine’s coastal weather.
Following Mama’s exit, Sarah vowed to enforce a new, more efficient management at White Cliffs minus the pointless indulgences paid for by her extravagant mother. The economy wasn’t that steady now so those lazy employees would be worked harder with a lower annual wage hike, and in the future there would be absolutely no smoking by staff on the premises. Sarah detested cigarette smoke and cigarette butts and she warned her staff to make sure there were no butts on the lawns or the steps, or anywhere at White Cliffs. Her mother died from smoking, and that was reason enough for a total ban on tobacco — period.
In their wills, Patsy and Stephen directed that their ashes be scattered to the winds around White Cliffs, a ritual Sarah thought bizarre; she didn’t feel comfortable having any remnants of her deceased parents floating about postmortem. After the terms of the will were accomplished as stipulated, old Rosy Sullivan, the receptionist, cried — she always did when someone she knew and loved was sprinkled over the cliffs.
Jimmy “Skinny” St. George had been the chef for five years and enjoyed wide latitude on the menus having established the legendary St. George breakfasts at White Cliffs: Canadian bacon, sausages, ham and eggs, hot and cold cereals, fresh fruits, home fries and hash browns along with a tempting array of light and dark toast, jams and jellies — none of that continental cuisine crap.
One morning after the dining room had emptied, Sarah stopped Jimmy with one of her let’s-have-a-chat looks that her employees loathed. “Hey Jimmy, how much breakfast you reckon we waste every day?” asked Sarah
Skinny Jimmy, thin as spaghetti, had never been asked that question and was unaware of the consequences his careless answer would bring. “Oh, sometimes we chuck the scrambled eggs and leftover toast; the staff gets whatever’s not eaten in the bacon and sausage department. Why?”
“Food’s expensive and I’d hate to raise our rates simply because we can’t control costs. Let me know where we can start, OK?” Sarah figured her classes in home economics were beginning to pay off — she had a new MacBook and calculated that she’d have the Inn sorted out straight away. Dad would be so proud; Mom could go stuff it.
By June, they began to drift in for their seasonal stays, arriving in every conveyance from a decrepit Packard touring car to the latest luxury model Lexus: the old-timers and returnees or “the family,” as old Rosy called them. Their arrival pleased Sarah, not because she knew or even liked any of these old cronies, but because long-term guests generally complained less and would bug Rosy with their problems. Sarah Little was running things now, determined to manage White Cliffs as a profitable business, not some goddamn summer retirement home.
“How nice that the daughter’s carrying on,” remarked the Alison Arnold who’d been coming up with her husband, Horace, from Pennsylvania for many years. “We do miss Patsy and Stephen, though. What’s the girl’s name?”
“Food’s gone downhill,” grumbled Horace after their first day. “Guess she’s trying to skimp on breakfast.”
Two family retainers remained in residence each summer at White Cliffs — Stan, the gardener and handyman and Rosy Sullivan, front-desk receptionist and general coordinator, a title that meant tending to all small needs of staff and guests. Both were indispensable and highly prized by most everyone.
Sarah didn’t look anything like an innkeeper, and she certainly didn’t resemble her late mother who was poised, nicely-dressed and well-groomed at all times. Sarah’s casual style — butch haircut, short shorts and flimsy frayed sandals — confused the guests who sometimes mistook her for staff. It really pissed Sarah off whenever someone buttonholed her for towels, fresh bedding, or more toilet paper.
“Well, nobody knows you yet,” said Rosy one morning after suffering Sarah’s latest tirade on No Respect. “Why not greet your guests at mealtime, and get acquainted.” So, for five consecutive mornings, Sarah dragged herself out of bed for the early breakfast and stood with spoon in hand helping to serve scrambled eggs onto outstretched plates, saying good-morning and lovely day and trying like hell to be bright and pleasant. Some thought she must be Jimmy’s assistant and wished her good luck at her new job in the kitchen, thereby accelerating a finale to Sarah’s unsuccessful stint in the dining room.
An elegant, rambling structure overlooking the Atlantic, White Cliffs in its prime was a commanding model of New England hotel architecture with traditional Nantucket-gray shingles and lobster-red trim. Built in the late forties, and subject to fierce coastal weather, White Cliffs, like her guests, was getting on in years and frequently in need of attention. Sarah postponed putting a rubber roof over the dining room because she knew that the water-side shingles would have to be replaced, and along with antiquated plumbing currently threatening the upstairs bathrooms she couldn’t afford all that maintenance for at least another year.
On the night of July 4th, the first major calamity struck. Sarah was out of town watching the fireworks with her husband and two small children, and had forgotten to bring her cell phone. No one could have foreseen that this was the beginning of the end.
The dining room was packed that evening as many of the guests took advantage of Jimmy’s July 4th Super Seafood Festival featuring steamers, lobster bisque or oysters, graduating to State-o-Maine baked stuffed lobster, Chilean fresh sea bass or bay scallops.
Suddenly, everyone in the room stopped talking. As the room fell silent, guests sat in upright astonishment while falling driblets of dirty water began spotting white linen table cloths, landing in water glasses and onto their heads. The ceiling appeared to be weeping, the offending driblets growing larger and more frequent as heads swiveled around and craned upwards; everyone seemed to be talking and jumping up, and brushing their clothes, their foreheads and their hair.
As cracks spread like rushing roadmaps through the ceiling, a small chunk of soggy plaster fell to the floor releasing a torrent of brown water and hurrying the evacuation of the entire room. Jimmy and his helpers abandoned their seafood extravaganza and dashed upstairs to discover an overflowing toilet clogged with a tampon -- despite signs in every bathroom plainly designating an alternate method of disposal.
When Sarah returned home to find her dining room ruined, she posted an unpleasant memo to the staff and residents at White Cliffs about toilet etiquette, admonishing the transgressors and warning that in the future a repeat incident would result in stiff and swift legal action. The next morning two of the regulars packed their bags, called a taxi, and informed Sarah that they’d never be back. In return, Sarah charged them for the full length of their booking and promised that their absence would not be noticed.
The national economy had made a gradual downturn, the price of gas soared and the Inn’s once-certain annual bookings were off. Sarah began to cut hours and eliminate overtime altogether, upsetting the part-time staff, creating dissension among the regulars, and stirring up hard-feelings throughout the Inn. Rosy did her best to smooth ruffled feathers but chose not to confront Sarah.
Complicating an already unstable and unpleasant atmosphere, the Inn now faced an uncommonly dry summer as lawns spouted crab-grass and burned brown while the flower gardens bowed to a lack of water and weeding. Sarah announced that water bills at White Cliffs were too high and she had no intention of wasting money on a situation nobody could control. No outside watering, came the terse command.
Rosy felt sorry for Sarah who now was running the Inn in crisis mode seven days a week and wearing a worry mask every hour of the day. Sarah was plain and wouldn’t use make-up to enhance an otherwise wan and characterless face. Her husband, Dan, never supported Sarah’s candidacy as innkeeper because he thought it was a thankless job under the best of circumstances.
One evening early in August, after Sarah and her family drove down to Boston for the day some of the staff met with Rosy at the front desk to discuss the Inn’s deteriorating condition. Guests were complaining, laundry and cleaning supplies were in short supply and there wasn’t enough staff to cover weekends. Sarah’s refusal to pay overtime and her demand for extra hours from everyone created acrimony and rebellion, so when Rosy told Sarah her some of the staff were ready to quit, Sarah reluctantly reinstated overtime and promised a free barbeque to help restore morale.
Her ploy didn’t fly — everyone was still expected to be flexible and fill in to cover the summer vacation period, which meant the kitchen staff would, when required, do double duty cleaning toilets or making beds and the housekeepers were expected to wash dishes in the kitchen. Rosy tried to cheer them up but Sarah had gone too far.
The first to leave was Stan who had labored for the Littles longer than anyone could remember — at least twenty-two seasons, he claimed. Stan told Rosy he was tired of the missus ordering him about and forcing him to pick-up every friggin’ little cigarette butt — even when he was out on the tractor mower or up on a ladder painting trim.
“Maybe things will get better once Sarah gets the hang of it,” pleaded Rosy.
“She’ll ruin everything,” said Stan, “and I ain’t staying around to see her go down — can’t even water my gardens, for crissakes!”
Sarah wasn’t unhappy to see Stan go; she could hire two younger workers — schoolboys — for the salary she’d paid Stan and of course they’d work harder and get things done a lot quicker — with no backtalk. “It’s simply about good economics,” she lectured Rosy on the day that Stan walked out with his last paycheck — minus unemployment benefits and a bonus. Rosy wasn’t about to leave: she put in for unemployment each fall and went south for three months during the winter. Staying put and staying quiet — you betcha.
During the summer, Sarah spent evenings with her family in their cottage adjoining the grounds; it was far enough away to maintain some privacy, allowing only emergency intrusions from guests. In her time, Patsy always sat with folks on the verandah or strolled about each evening asking if everyone was comfortable. Sarah figured the front-desk people could handle those duties from now on; what else did they have to do at night but sit on their fat asses, anyway?
Copyright © 2010 by Nathaniel Johnson