The story of Grandma's lost engagement ring was something of a legend in the Rhinehart family, told and retold over the years until it attained a stature of near epic proportions, but for Gail it was something of a bore.
She sat back in the folding chair on the patio, listening to the lazy hum of late summer insects as Grandpa Roland Rhineheart told the story to the fascinated grandkids for what seemed the zillionth time. Flickering light from the sweet smelling citronella torches cast wavering shadows over them as the sun sank beneath the horizon. She'd heard him tell it so many times she could practically repeat it verbatim.
Harold, her husband, saw her expression. Leaning over he whispered, “Dad's almost done, honey. Just a little longer.”
She nodded slightly. “How do you stand it?” she whispered back. “You must have heard this story a million times when you were growing up and now you have to listen while he tells our kids.”
He took a sip of beer, now getting warm and a bit stale. “This helps.” She gave him an arch look. “Well it's either that or go out and find the silly thing to get him to shut up about it,” he defended himself.
She started to laugh then pulled up short. “Do you think we could?”
“Hunh?” Harold paused with his beer halfway to his lips. “Could what?”
“Find it,” she amplified. “He's told this story so many times we've got all the clues we need to find it.”
He took a slow sip. “Uhm, the Hotel Grim is closed, babe. It's falling down from age, mildew, and about a thousand years of termite damage. It's not safe.”
One of Texarkana's oldest landmarks, the Hotel Grim had been the place to go and be seen in the 1930's but now it was boarded up and gradually going to pieces from neglect.
“There's no termites,” she protested, knowing he was teasing. “That thing is all marble, concrete, and bricks.”
“Along with rusted metal stairs and floors that rotting away from the rain coming in all the broken windows,” he reminded her. “Mom and Dad's room was on the fifth floor.”
“Oh come,” she said. “Where's your sense of adventure?”
“What are you two whispering about?” Robert asked. Harold's older brother had put on some extra weight over the years from his wife Linda's above average cooking. Without the extra pounds he would have looked almost exactly like his handsome younger sibling.
“Gail is tired of hearing Dad's story about Mom's engagement ring. She wants us shut him up by going and finding it,” Harold told him.
Robert's eyes lit up. “Hey! What a great idea! My old friend from college, Dave Farmer, is a cop on the Texarkana PD. I'll bet he could get us in there, no problem.”
Harold's jaw dropped. “Are you serious? You want to go rummaging around in that old firetrap?”
“Sure. Why not?” he laughed. “I'll call Dave right now,” he said, digging out his phone and dialing.
Harold palmed his forehead. Once Robert got on a roll there was no stopping him, and from the expression on Gail's face she was in total agreement with him. “I'm toast,” he muttered to himself.
“Dave!” Robert exclaimed in delight. “Hey listen, buddy. I've got a favor to ask you . . .”
Twenty minutes later the three of them, plus Robert's wife Linda, pulled up in front of the faded old glory of the Hotel Grim. Built in 1924 at a cost of $600,000, it had eight stories and 250 rooms and was quite elegant for its time and place in Texarkana. According to local historians the architects were George Mann and Eugene Stern. It was named after William Rhodes Grim, a prominent business man.
The lobby had a breathtaking sight in its day, featuring stone walls and marble flooring. The first floor housed the hotel’s café, the main dining room, as well as the famous Palm Court. The mezzanine held a beauty parlor, a barber shop, a coffee shop, a private dining room, and a drug store.
In 1934 radio station KCMC established a studio in the hotel. Later that year Bonnie and Clyde were rumored to have once made an appearance in the restaurant. The roof had been adorned by gardens and could be quickly converted to a ballroom. It had been vacant for 28 years since 1990 when it finally shut down a week after their parent's last night of their honeymoon there.
Dave, a strapping young ex-Marine, got out of his patrol car to meet them. He and Robert went through the usual “hail fellow, well met” back slapping routine common to Southern men before they finally got down to business. “It's like I said on the phone,” Robert told him, “we wanna try'n find Mom's engagement ring. She lost it here on her honeymoon and my sister-in-law, Gail,” he gestured at her and she nodded politely, “is tired of hearing Dad's story about it. If we can find it maybe we can shut him up about it,” he grinned.
Dave nodded. “Yeah, I've heard that story a time or two myself,” he commiserated with her. “I think he tells everyone he sees.” He grew more serious. “I stopped at the station and got the keys, but you gotta promise to be careful in there. If you get hurt it's my ass on the line, you know?”
Linda looked a little nervous but they all nodded..
“Alright,” he shrugged. “I ain't yer daddy.” He strode over to the main doors and inserted the over-sized key. It turned easily with a loud click as the last light faded from the sky. “I hope you brought some flashlights. It's pitch black in some of those hallways.”
Robert flicked his on and the rest of them followed suit. “We sure did,” he responded jovially, his voice tight with excitement.
Dave nodded. “It's a slow night so I'll hang out down here as long as I can, but if I get called away you're on your own.”
Linda clutched Robert's arm. “We'll be fine,” he assured her while nodding at Dave.
Because she was slowing him down, and Gail, finally confronting the reality of the cave-like mezzanine, hesitated a moment too long, Harold wound up being the first inside despite being the one who originally objected. He waved his flashlight around.
The thirty to thirty-five foot high ceiling gave the giant room a cavernous feel. The molding on the ceiling created strange shadows as he moved the beam back and forth over it. Blue tile around the dry water fountain, still shiny after decades of neglect, reflected his light back in his eyes.
“Wow,” Gail muttered softly. Her voice echoed back and forth through the room, bouncing off the walls of the wide balcony that circled the back half of it. Under the balcony was the remains of the bricked in registration desk, flanked by massive, square concrete pillars. Graffiti covered the pillars on the upper balcony where vandals had broken in over the years.
Her flashlight joined Harold's. She pointed it down a dark hallway that looked like something out of The Shining. Immediately she wished she hadn't thought of that movie. This creepy old hotel would have the perfect spot to film it. She shivered and moved closer to Harold.
“You alright, babe?” he asked, sliding an arm around her waist.
“Yeah,” she nodded. “It's just a little spookier than I thought it would be.”
“Do we take the elevator or the stairs?” Linda asked, speaking up for the first time since their arrival. She tried to smile to make it a joke.
Robert, generally oblivious to female emotions, took her at face value. “The stairs. Duh.”
She rolled her eyes. “And they are . . . where?” She waved her flashlight around aimlessly.
Harold was exploring around the registration desk. The wide hallway to the left, almost wide enough to be a long room, had a sign about halfway back that said, “Stairs,” in large black letters. “This way,” he told them. “Come on.”
Gail squeaked and hurried after him. “Wait for me.”
He gave her a sardonic grin. “This was your idea, babe. Aren't you enjoying it?”
“Ha ha, mister show off.” She slapped his shoulder. “Just don't run off and leave me. This place is giving me the creeps.”
He took her hand and she squeezed it tight. “It probably looks different in the daytime.” They reached the stairs and looked up. There were piles of trash, metal re-bar, and fallen plaster covering them. He shook his head. “Be careful, babe.” He took a huge step over the first pile of junk on the bottom stair. He held her hand as she stepped up beside him, then turned and began threading his way up.
He had to turn his feet sideways a few times to step between the re-bar laying loose on the stairs, and once he had to stand a huge piece of plaster on its side because it was so wide it covered the whole stairs. Behind them they could hear Robert and Linda negotiating the stairs with equal caution. Their voices echoed hollowly in the stairwell.
At the second floor landing they paused. Harold glanced up. The dark stairwell overhead looked like an empty tooth socket. He panned his flashlight up it but it didn't improve any.
“Charming,” Linda mumbled.
Harold nodded. “Yeah. Sorry, it's the maids day off.” He glanced around. “Ready?” They nodded and he led the way.
The next two flights of stairs weren't too bad, but the third one had a huge gap in the middle of two stairs. They had to stay flat against the wall to ease past the hole in the floor. They all found themselves trembling in reaction once they were past the dangerous opening. “You know, we still have to go past it again on the way back down,” Robert noted dryly.
Linda gave her husband a dirty look. “Yeah we know it, but you didn't have to say it.”
He shrugged and gestured for his brother to lead the way again. Harold nodded and headed up more stairs. Two flights of dangerous, debris-filled stairs later they found themselves on the 5th floor landing. Gail panned her flashlight around. A sign on the wall indicated rooms 501-530 were to the left. “Down there,” she said, half whispering in a quavering voice.
“525, here we come,” Harold nodded. His Dad always made a point of telling everyone which room they'd stayed in. He trudged down the hallway, stepping carefully around creaking boards which were coming loose or rotting away entirely. Some of them felt soft and spongy as if they were ready to give way at any moment.
The long hall finally led them to Room 525, one of the few rooms where the door was shut. Harold turned the knob and pushed but it refused to budge. “It's stuck,” he muttered. “Rob, come help me with this,” he said, handing Gail his flashlight.
Robert gave his flashlight to Linda then put his shoulder against the door with Harold. “On 3?”
“Yep. One . . . two . . . three!” Harold grunted.
They shoved hard, their feet scrabbling against the splintering floorboards. The door creaked loudly then burst open with a sudden crash. The hollow boom echoed down the halls as they stumbled through the doorway.
“Whoa!” Harold exclaimed. There was a gaping, four foot wide hole in the floor just inside the door. He reared back in alarm. Robert hastily grabbed his arm to pull him away from it.
They exchanged a relieved grin. Robert reclaimed his flashlight and peered down the hole to the room below. “Watch that first step, it's a doozy!”
Gail stepped past the men, feeling a return of her courage now they were actually in the suite where her father-in-law and mother-in-law had spent their honeymoon. “The bed was between two big windows,” she recited from Roland's oft-told story. She aimed her light at the gap between two large windows. Taking careful steps she made her way across the room to where the bed and side tables had once stood. “Maggie had to take her ring off so she wouldn't scratch me during our, uhm, marital enjoyment,” she repeated, smiling at Roland's euphemisms for love making.
She panned her light over the baseboards where the bedside table would have been. Dry, faded wood, splintering and lifeless was all she could see.
“Hey Gail, look over here,” Linda said, kneeling down beside her. She pointed to a spot that would have been behind the headboard. An open knothole in a floorboard revealed inky blackness beneath it. “You think Maggie's ring could have bounced and rolled in there?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed excitedly. “There's nowhere else it could have gone.” It was true. The floor and baseboard, displaying the craftsmanship of a bygone era, were closely joined everywhere else along the entire wall.
Linda stuck two fingers down the hole but couldn't feel anything. She tried pulling up but the board stayed stubbornly in place.
Robert tapped her on the shoulder. “Move aside, hun. I've got this.” She nodded and stood up, dusting her knees off. He raised his foot as high as he could then brought it down with a crash. The wood splintered and cracked.
He stomped it again, then again. It broke with a loud snap!, and his foot went through the floor up to his ankle. “Yikes!” he yelped, flailing around off balance.
Harold grabbed him and steadied him so he could pull his foot out of the hole. “Now we're even,” he grinned at his big brother.
“Yeah, yeah,” Robert grinned.
“I see something!” Gail squeaked in sudden joy. “Look!”
Something in the depths of the dark space between the floors reflected their lights, sparkling brightly at them.
“Get it babe,” Harold told her.
She squatted down to grab it, her heart pounding in her chest. Was it really going to be this simple?
She lifted the tiny object up for them to see, and there, dirty and dusty, covered with cobwebs and bits of wood was a slender gold ring with a solitary diamond on it.
They all gasped.
“See if the writing is in there,” Robert urged her, his voice quivering with excitement.
She ran her finger through the ring to brush away the dirt and gunk then they all turned their lights on the inside of the band. There, in tiny flowing script were engraved the words they all knew so well from Grandpa Roland's story – Roland and Margaret Forever.