by Phyllis Martens
By noon next day Johann Jungas had bought the Grand Hotel. He put down the first payment with money he had in the bank. His credit was good for the rest.
Half a dozen men, wearing overalls and heavy jackets, began moving Johann's goods to the hotel. They shouted to him, hefting the heavy ranges--"Gonna be just like before, live on top of your store--all you done was change location a little."
Johann walked about in the large empty rooms telling the men where to set things down. Several women armed with brooms and rags swept away the debris that had collected on the floors over the years, and wiped the snow and ashes off the incoming stoves and machines. The shoes were dumped on the floor of a side room, to be sorted later. Helena had gone down to the basement to heat water for washing the floors. The children had been sent off to school despite their indignant objections that they had nothing to wear. "Put those same clothes back on," Helena said firmly. "You'll have to wear them until I sew new ones."
By early afternoon the street was cleared. Helena invited the men inside for hot soup, donated by Sukau's restaurant, and pie brought in by neighbor women. "Good gracious, shut the front door at least--it's cold in here!" one of the women cried. "You guys, clean off your boots...look at the muck you tracked in!"
"Ladies, dear ladies, we humbly apologize--just give us some of that hot stuff to thaw our frozen-up noses and we'll do anything you say." It was Korny Kornelson, the town joker, putting on such a lugubrious face that the women burst out laughing. The workers sat around on chairs they had found stacked in the dining room and ate with gusto. Helena brought up coffee. The men stood up to go. "Well, Johann, it's all in. A lot of it isn't damaged much, just needs a cleanup. Advertise a fire sale and half the county'll be out."
The women stayed on to wipe off the shoes, sort them and put them back into their smudged boxes--expensive leather shoes in fashionable colors, with long rows of buttons. They each picked out a pair they were going to buy as soon as Johann had his sale. "Take them!" Helena exclaimed. "You deserve more than that."
Johann had begun taking inventory. The women went home, except Mrs. Sukau from the restaurant, who insisted on washing the lunch dishes as well as the stacks of plates and bowls she had found in a large cupboard in the kitchen.
Mrs. Sukau was not well spoken of in town because she never went to church, but she was a good friend of Helena's. When Helena came up with a bucket of hot water to begin cleaning floors, Mrs. Sukau left the dishes and the two went upstairs together. Opening onto the long narrow hallway of the second floor were guest rooms, doubles and singles. Iron bedsteads with narrow flat springs were stacked in the corners, together with dirty striped mattresses and hard pillows yellowed with water stains. White porcelain pitchers and basins lay tumbled on the floors. Each room was outfitted with a chair and a small wooden chest of drawers. Dust lay thick over everything. The third floor rooms were just the same. At the end of the hall was a storage closet, long shelves stacked with sheets and towels.
"You going to live up here?" Mrs. Sukau asked, eyeing the dingy rooms. "Where are you going to cook?"
"We can move up one of Johann's stoves," Helena said.
"Any bathrooms up here? I didn't see one."
It turned out that there was only one bathroom for the two floors. Mrs. Sukau shook her head. "It won't be much fun with eight kids, but if anybody can do it, you can, Helena Jungas."
Mrs. Sukau went back to finish the dishes, and Helena got to work with her bucket and rags, beginning in Room 18, third floor. She washed the pitcher and basin, wiped off the dresser, and began scrubbing the floor. The room smelled like wet wood. When she began coughing because of the dust, she pushed open the stuck window and let in fresh cold air.
"I'm going--gotta help in the restaurant," Mrs. Sukau called up the stairs. Helena was alone in the building.
What happened next is one of the strange events in Grandma's life. She told it exactly this way, and I believe her.
While she was on her knees scrubbing the floor of Room 18, she heard a voice say, "Rent out these rooms and you will have bread." She looked around, thinking Johann might have come up. She saw nobody. Puzzled, she went back to work. Again the voice spoke: "Rent out these rooms and you will have bread." She sat back on her heels to consider this extraordinary thing. Helena was not used to hearing voices, heavenly or earthly, telling her what to do. However, what could this be but the voice of God? She turned the message over in her mind. Illumination came. By putting the hotel back in business as a rooming house, she could earn the money to feed and clothe the family while Johann worked to rebuild the store.
She finished the floor and ran downstairs, drying her hands on her apron, to tell Johann her decision. Johann looked up from his inventory papers in surprise; then shook his head and said, "No, it's too much work. I don't want you to have to clean up after other people. You have enough work taking care of the children."
Helena said no more. She went back upstairs to finish Room 18. She was just wiping down the washstand when she heard someone running up the stairs in a great hurry. Johann appeared in the doorway. "Do you have a room ready?" he asked, out of breath. "A salesman is downstairs asking for a room for tonight."
"Why, yes," she replied. "I just have to make up the bed."
Helena earned her first rent money that night: one dollar. In the next weeks a small but steady procession of guests entered the big front doors: traveling salesmen, businessmen needing a room for a night, people visiting in town for a week or so, even a troupe of circus performers. Johann made no further objections. He was busy from morning to night looking after customers.
(To be continued)