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The Ghosts Of Christmas Eve

November 23, 2016

Our story tonight takes place at the Westin Hotel. An old relic from the roaring 20’s that lies just on the outskirts of Chicago. A place where dreams die and shadows wander. It’s a snapshot in time that only remains standing because of the tireless efforts of Mr. James Winthrop and his wife Eileen. Mr. Winthrop is not a man that gives in to the false promises of wealth or materials. Instead, James Winthrop deals in the valuable currency that is memory, or in this case, memories. He is a man who has never taken for granted fortune or luck. His hands are wrinkled and calloused from years of manual labor. At first glance, his blue eyes seem sharp and speak of years of wisdom and experience. On closer inspection, however, one can see the strain of despair that too often comes with loss and suffering. Fortunately for Mr. Winthrop, it is Christmas Eve. A night when the dreams of many come to fruition. While children around the world are tended to by a belief in Santa Clause, Mr. Winthrop will be tended to by an old hotel…and the ghosts that still walk it’s halls.

DECEMBER 24th, 2015 10:30 p.m.

James Winthrop stood in front of the entrance to the Westin Hotel. The sharp Chicago wind blew through his heart like an ice pick. It was a quiet night, one for which Mr. Winthrop was grateful. He thought of Eileen and how angry she’d be if she saw him standing outside in just a hooded sweatshirt and jeans. It was then that the tears fell. Eileen had died 22 hours earlier. Cancer of the brain was the diagnosis, chemotherapy was the cause of death. They had been married 30 years, and for 30 years she had helped him take care of this dingy broken down palace of a hotel that once stood as a monument to excess in the 1920’s. For 30 years she had spent her nights at the Westin polishing statues no one cared about, and dusting paintings no one would ever see. When asked why she would waste her time taking care of an old hotel that no one paid attention to, she would say it wasn’t the hotel she was taking care of, but the memories. The only one who understood was James.

They had bought the hotel on the cheap in 1985. James had won the lottery in the summer of, 20 million to be exact. He and Eileen had been together two years by that point. They lived in a very modest apartment in one of the rougher areas of the city. Every Sunday night, James would load up their tiny little 1984 Cherry Red Datsun and drive off to the docks. Once there, he would begin his weekly shift as a longshoremen. Some days it was runs on a tug to Cleveland, others it was a week on a freighter bound for Marquette or St. Joseph. Either way, the work was hard and not as rewarding as he would have liked it to be. When his shift was done, be it an 8 hour or an 8 day, he would take the long way home up 55 near Archer Heights. There, at the corner of Archer Avenue and South Pulaski, stood the Westin Hotel. In the 80’s it was a shell of it’s former self. The bones were still strong, it had just given in to time like so many things in life do. Back in the 20’s though, the Westin was the place to be. An expansive 4 story hotel with a wing jutting out from each side, it was home to many of the extravagant parties that have now become the stuff of legends. It’s ballroom had seen numerous fox trots, Charlestons, and even a Tango performed by Rudolph Valentino. Then, in 1929, it all crashed down. The stock market blew up and the damage was too severe for even the famed Westin to survive. To it’s credit, the Westin lasted until 1941. By then it was hemorrhaging money. The owner, a shipping magnate by name of Harold Westin, had decided enough was enough. The hotel had bankrupted him. Instead of picking himself up and moving on, Harold Westin held a banquet for his employees on the last day of business. He repaid their loyalty and hard work by filling their glasses with wine…and hemlock. A few weeks later, the stories started. Someone knew a friend of a friend, or the cousin of a girlfriend, who had seen a ghost in the window late at night, or heard distant cries coming from the bowels of the hotel as they walked by. As the years went by and the advances in technology became more and more frequent, the hotel became a thing of the past. It’s dusty halls and alleged ghosts were forgotten. At least by everyone not named James Winthrop.

As James would drive by the hotel on his way home, he imagined what it would look like in it’s glory days. Men and women dressed to the nines, large, bright, chandeliers hanging from every ceiling in the hotel. Even the large golden staircase in the middle of the lobby that greeted guests as they walked in. He could hear the sounds of the big jazz bands. Maybe it was Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz band which featured Louie Armstrong on trumpet, or maybe it was Jelly Roll Morton. Either way, he could hear the horns as loud as thunder. He could see the dance floor in the ballroom filled to capacity with young star crossed lovers carrying on like they had all the time in the world. It must have been a sight to see. Once past the hotel though, James would feel an emptiness. Like he was leaving an old friend for the last time.

Once the madness surrounding their lottery win had settled down, James and Eileen set to the task of figuring out what to do with their new found wealth. One day James casually mentioned the idea of buying the Westin. Maybe they could fix it up and have it cast as a Historical Landmark. Eileen had surprised James by agreeing with his idea. Two days later they were handed the keys, four days later, the renovation work started. All in all, it took about 27 months for the repairs to be completed. By October 8th, 1987, they had moved into a room on the first floor of the hotel. Rather than have it dedicated as a historical landmark, the Winthrops decided to use it personally. When holidays were celebrated, they invited their families to stay with them. During the summer it was friends. Despite all that, they still found time to care for the rest of the hotel. Every night around 10-10:30pm, they would start to clean, and polish, and dust. It was for all intents and purposes, a labor of love.

Fast forward 27 years to 2014, and we find the Winthrops excelling. Having played the market quite accurately through the years, James Winthrop has amassed quite a fortune. They are the happiest they have ever been. Despite not needing to work a day in their lives, they still cared for the hotel every night. Then, just as it did in 1929, it all crashed down. Eileen had been complaining of cluster headaches for weeks. After a trip to the doctor and a CT scan, the diagnosis came back: brain cancer.

Eileen had decided to go ahead with the chemotherapy treatment despite the fact that it only raised her odds of survival from 10% – 40%. The drugs hit her hard and often left her lying in bed for hours on end. The first night of treatment, James tried to stick with Eileen in the bedroom. She insisted that he get out and do his nightly duty for the hotel. So the nights went by, James polished and Eileen got sicker. By November she was barely functioning, and by Christmas Eve…well…

James shuddered as the cold Chicago air enveloped him. His eye misted as he once again pondered what Eileen’s reaction to seeing him out here would have been. He turned around and walked back inside the hotel. He sighed and looked down the first floor hallway. Tonight everything seemed longer, bigger, and emptier. He walked to the front desk and grabbed the tin of bronze polish and the dingy cloth folded up next it. He took a moment of silence for Eileen, and then, because he didn’t know what else to do with himself, he polished the statue next to the staircase in the lobby.

James had just finished polishing the 2nd statue when a voice rang out.

“Excuse me, Mr Winthrop, we can handle that.”

James whipped around and found himself staring at a man dressed in a tux.

“Who are you?” James inquired.

“My name is Harold Westin, I built this hotel.” The man replied.

“But you died years ago.”

“Indeed I did” Westin bristled. “Now as I said a moment ago, we can handle that.” Westin snapped his fingers and the hotel immediately became engulfed in light. James shut his eyes for a few moments before opening them slowly so they could adjust to the light. He gasped as he saw people running around in every direction, polishing the brass, dusting the paintings, and vacuuming the floors.

“I…I dont understand…”

“It’s simple Mr Winthrop. Tonight my employees will take care of the cleaning, because tonight you have an engagement of your own in the ballroom.”

James followed Westin all the while muttering to himself and questioning his sanity. When they reached the ballroom, Mr. Westin pulled one of the two heavy oak doors open. In the middle of the expansive ballroom sat a little table with two chairs. In the chair farthest from the door sat Eileen. James hobbled weakly to the table.

“Eileen? Is that really you?”

“It’s me James.” Eileen smiled.

James wasn’t even aware the tears had started falling until he felt them on his cheeks.

“But Eileen, you…you’re…”

“The hotel brought me back James. It brought me back so I could say goodbye.”

James wrapped his arms around Eileen as the tears flowed freely. “How am I going to live without you Eileen?”

Eileen kissed the top of his head. “I will always be with you James. Now how about we spend our last night doing something productive.”

Without warning, the sounds of the Joe “King” Oliver Creole Jazz Band blared out from the corner of ballroom.  The ballroom was suddenly filled with men and women dressed to the nines performing all sorts of dances including the fox trot, the Charleston, and Rudolph Valentino doing the Tango. James looked around and basked in the memories of yesteryear taking place all around him.

A few hours later, Mr. Westin arrived in the ballroom. The guests, the band, and the table all disappeared as he stepped foot through the doorway. “Mr. Winthrop, I must apologize, the hour is getting late and the shadows are growing long. The time for goodbyes is upon us.”

James cupped Eileen’s face in his hands. “I love you so much. I’m so sorry things ended this way.”

“Don’t be” Eileen replied. “The years I spent with you were the best I ever had. Take care James.” She kissed him one last time before slowly fading into nothingness.

James turned around and looked at Westin. “Why? Why would you do this for me?”

“You’ve taken care of this hotel for 30 years Mr. Winthrop. You preserved her memories and healed her wounds. Tonight she did the same for you. Merry Christmas, Mr. Winthrop.”

Before he could utter a word in return, Harold Westin had disappeared taking with him the bright lights and the still cleaning hotel employees. James Winthrop looked around and smiled.

******

The next morning, two policemen were finishing the last rounds of their shift when they came upon a dark lump lying in front of the doors of the Westin Hotel.

“Is that what I think it is?” The driver asked

“I don’t know, Dave. Let’s go take a look.”

They pulled the patrol car over and walked over to the hotel.

“Aww man, that’s James Winthrop. He owns this place.” Dave said.

“Is he dead?”

“Looks like he froze to death, I’m assuming he was out here for hours. Probably locked himself out of the hotel accidentally.  Can’t imagine being stuck outside in this crap with only a hoodie and jeans.”

“God, that’s terrible. I wonder why he didn’t try to get help.”

“I don’t know, but he died with a smile on his face. I’m guessing he went peacefully, so at least there’s that.”

The officer not named Dave, sighed. “Alright, let’s call this in. Hell of a way to start Christmas.”

© CJ Williamson 2016

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