The bartender’s ring is nothing special. It’s just one that fits. She bought it because her hands are really big. Frankly, enormous. That’s what she says anyway. I hold my hand up for comparison. Her fingers decently measure to my outstretched hand. Not that big.
I saw the same ring a few minutes ago. It belonged to a woman in a painting who smiles wearily from within a colossal picture frame. Massively bronze. I decide it’s one of the heaviest objects in this magnificent hotel. She’s a redhead with a quill pen. She’s seated at a table, charmed by a man with a handlebar moustache.
You can never trust a man with a handlebar moustache.
In front of the painting, on the landing of the stairs, is an antique desk. Any guest of The Pfister Hotel is welcome to sit here. But today I have the distinction of being a guest narrator, so I feel confident enough to take such a prominent place. The desk offers me a beautiful view of the hotel, its visitors and staff.
The bellhop wheels a cart in front of me. Two identical black backpacks swing from the rail. Two small suitcases rest beneath them. That’s how visitors arrive in my hometown of Milwaukee. They travel light, ready for neighborhood tours, light apps, nightcap drinks. Backpacked professionals ready to bounce effortlessly between landmarks. The redhead probably wasn’t disposed to the same mobility. The 17th century hadn’t yet perfected Ziplocked toiletries.
Directly across the lobby is a similar Victorian-style painting. Same girl. Crimson hair. Table. Another guy with a Mephistophelian grin drapes her arm. Even from across the lobby I can tell that she wears a turquoise ring on her right hand.
The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.
The woman in the painting is Ninon De Lenclos. She’s described as the beauty and wit of the 17th century. Normal-sized hands. Her motivations for acquiring a turquoise ring obviously different from the bartender’s.
Four hundred years have passed between them.
The ground floor affords an entirely different feel than the top floor. Cities can sometimes seem depressingly barren. Not Milwaukee. From above, it looks like trees are the dominant lifeform. A vibrant green space awaits the backpack-clad travelers.
I meet a couple in the bar. Liz and Joe followed their beloved Nevada football team all the way to Illinois, only to see them defeated at the hands of Northwestern. They tacked Milwaukee onto the end of the trip. Sports provide a wonderful excuse to see the country, meet new people, and be awed by sights the locals take for granted. All the better if your team wins.
Sports didn’t have this unifying effect in the 17th century. It’s hard to imagine anyone tailgating in Victorian Paris. But wine has a long, illustrious history. Maybe they sipped it at the horse track. I imagine the redhead is paying a gambling debt with that quill pen she’s holding in her perfectly normal-sized fingers. Maybe she drank glogg, a hot, spiced wine popular during the holidays in this grand hotel.
I have several bar tabs open at once.
The elevator between the top floor bar and the lobby bar presents a new encounter. Genie is a regular visitor to her hometown of Milwaukee. A former actor, she lives in Los Angeles where she left the entertainment industry for a seminary in Pasadena.
“I have a special-needs brother who lives here. I’m having dinner with him later. Yesterday we moved my son into the dorms in Madison.”
Despite an appearance in Elizabethtown as the “young Orlando Bloom,” she tells me that he’s not there to study acting. He too, moved on from what was once the family business.
I glance at her fingers, bracing myself for a fourth coincidence. She wears no turquoise. Relief. I’m already too beguiled by the secrets of this grand hotel.
I settle my tabs, taking one last glance back at the 17th century, with its lavish redheads and conspiring gentlemen. I sling my backpack over my shoulder and head back into the verdant green of Milwaukee’s lingering summer.