I had locked myself out and my roommate had gone to see Depeche Mode, who happened to be playing in Amsterdam that weekend. He had actually gone to the concert to see Miranda Sex Garden, who were opening for Depeche Mode. We were staying at a small hotel in the red-light district. Everyone we met in Noordwijk-Binnen had told us that it wouldn't be easy to find accommodations because it was Pentecost, which marked the beginning of the summer season, so we felt to be lucky just to have a room, even in an establishment of less-than-stellar reputation. I went down to the front desk to ask the clerk for a spare key.
"There's no spare key," he told me in perfect English. "Maybe the porter has one." He rang the porter, who came down the old flight of stairs that led to the rooms.
They exchanged a few words in Dutch. The porter looked embarrassed.
"I don't know where the spare key to number 8 is. The day manager probably has it. They changed the locks last month and we've been having a problem since."
The porter, a balding middle-aged gentleman in a corduroy coat and alpaca vest, looked thoughtful.
"Would you like to sit for a moment? We can have a drink."
I expected him to lead me over to the narrow little bar that had earlier been full of smoke and drinkers of all ages, including a handsome Swiss-Roma fellow who had put his drinks on my tab and danced for hours with a blond prostitute in pink boots. Instead, he beckoned me toward the stairs.
"Where are we going?"
"Up to my room. We can have a drink and get to know each other."
The idea appealed to my love of the unexpected, and I immediately agreed, even though I should have put a little more thought into accepting such a strange proposition.
We made our way to a door at the far end of the second floor hall just beyond the laundry. It opened up on a room like any of the others in the hotel, except that it was stuffed from top to bottom with the personal effects of my new acquaintance. He sat me down on a leather easy chair and took off his coat, carefully hanging it on the back of a door.
There was a heavy cherry table in the middle of the room, surrounded by three ice cream chairs. An array of colored glasses and a selection of bottles sat on the table. My unexpected host filled two small sherry glasses with a couple of generous shots of Bol's Genever from a tan earthenware bottle.
"You drink this and you'll never get drunk. You'll just have a good time," he said.
"So," I said, lifting the glass of fiery liquid to my lips, "what's your name?"
"That's my name, too. Charles. In Spanish they say, 'You're my tocayo.'"
"What does that mean?"
"Namesake. But it's kind of a joke. Like saying, 'You were named for me.' Don't speak Spanish?"
"No. No Spanish, no Italian. We've got plenty of Spanish and Italian housekeepers, though, so I can always get one to translate."
I looked around his room, home to a man whose life was the seedy hotel and its guests. He had several tall bookshelves fill with books, magazines, and a substantial collection of old phonograph records. A Phillips portable turntable stood open on the floor. I set my drink down on an end table covered by glass. A fish-shaped Delftware vase sat on the table, holding a pink wax rose that had partially faded to the color of bone.
Carl poured out a second round.
"You're from the States?"
"What do you do there?"
"I run a specialty store. We sell coffee and teas. I'm here at a conference. I met a German fellow there, and since we both needed to spend the night in Amsterdam before taking the train to Schiphol tomorrow we got a room together."
"So you will be going home?"
"Yes. But I will certainly miss Holland."
"You will come and see us again." It wasn't a question. It was a statement.
"I hope so."
"We get many visitors from the States. But, of course, I usually don't get to entertain them in my room."
"How long have you worked here? At this hotel, I mean?"
"Are you married?"
"No. I once was, but no."
"Are you from Amsterdam?"
"Yes. But I travelled a lot when I was young."
"Have you visited the U.S.?"
"No. But we get a lot of American TV. Are you a fan of Dallas?"
"Not really. I've only seen a couple of episodes on cable TV."
"I am a big fan."
"I'll tell you something that nobody knows. When I'm here in my room and I'm all alone, I like to act out Dallas episodes."
He gestured toward a collection of Barbie and Ken dolls sitting on one of the bookshelves. He lifted a "Ken" that was wearing a miniscule white cowboy hat.
"This is JR."
He proceeded to show me the entire collection. The three Barbies were Sue Ellen, Pam and Miss Ellie. There were two other Kens. They played Bobby and Cliff Barnes.
We went from introductions to an episode before I knew what was happening. In that stuffy hotel room with dark wood paneling and the odor of pine oil, as a sideways golden meniscus moon rocked back and forth through an open window, JR attempted to pull a shady business move by spreading the word that his brother Bobby was dead. I was shocked by his willingness to lie to Bobby's wife and his own mother as part of the ruse. He was a bad hombre. I was too young to have any real connection with the show, so I took my cues from Carl when forced to improvise Cliff's dialogue. He also let me be Bobby, who arrived just in time to blow JR's carefully-crafted scheme to hell.
Unfortunately, before we all got to laugh at the barn door, or set up next week's episode, Carl got a call from the front desk. My roommate had returned and was asking if I there was a message for him about my plans for the evening.
"I should let him know I'm here," I told Carl. I was tired and my gin consumption had long surpassed simply having a "good time."
"I probably won't see you again before I leave. Thank you for your hospitality."
"Yes. You should go now. It's late." Carl shook my hand and ushered me out.
When I got back to my room I was informed by my roommate that there had been an "incident," and the second half of the concert had been cancelled. He had lapsed into almost unintelligible German, and one of his teeth was missing. I had an alarming intuition that he was directly involved in the "incident." He was covered in something that I prayed was only vomit.
"I'll tell you all about it when I'm sober."
"You locked me out when you left. Give me the key."
He handed it over sheepishly.
My roommate was gone before I awoke, so I never learned what the "incident" was that had brought the sold-out show to a standstill. I left the narrow, dark-brick hotel with my stomach doing somersaults and my head throbbing, stuffing what was left of my brightly-colored guilders absentmindedly into my wallet. My half of the bill had been surprisingly high, and I suspected that the desk clerk had tacked on my roommate's bar tab by mistake. All the way to the airport I was burping up the taste of gin and wondering what had happened to the time I had spent in the Netherlands. I listened to the sound of the train as it rushed through the countryside that had been filled with the color of flowers a few days earlier. The flowers had been cut, and only the green shoots were left, forming uninterrupted patches all the way to the seashore. The song of the train gently lulled me into peaceful sleep, but before I dozed off I heard devilish laughter, and I knew that it came from a porter.