Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Room at the Inn



1.




The yellow glow of the motel sign shown like a lighthouse on the shore.

"I don't know about this, Gail," he said through pursed lips and squinting eyes in order to affect as much discernment as possible.

"This is going to take forever," she said.

"There is a motel right over there. Why don't we get a room for the night and give them time to clear the roads a little."

She gave the yellow sign a perfunctory glance, flipped through her magazine a couple more cursory pages, and then lay her thin, pale hands across the glossy paper.

"No one else is getting off the highway," she said. "They are going to try it."

"They're probably going to get stuck. Besides, if its already moving this slow, traffic will probably come to a standstill before too long. Let's get over there now before we have to walk there."

"Come on, Alfred, its already taken us three days to get this far. At this rate we're never going to get there."

"Oh, we'll get there, Gail," he said and patted her gold and diamond-wrapped wrist.

"Don't patronize me, Alfred. If you want to chicken out and get off the road, then fine, but don't act like you are doing it for our own good. Just admit your scared. Hell, you're afraid of everything."

He began wheeling the car into the tracks laid out before him to make the next exit.

"I really do think its the best thing."

"I'm sure you do."

"You'll see tomorrow when we are passing abandoned vehicles all the way over the mountain."

"Whatever you say, dear."

"The radio said the storm would end tonight. They'll have the roads cleared by the time we are ready to travel in the morning."

She said nothing else until they pulled into the parking lot of the motel when she said, "Please, try to get a decent room," with very sarcastic emphasis on the 'try.'

Inside the office, there was already a pile of stomped-off snow tot he side of the door, and Alfred contributed a little more. Behind the desk, in oiled hair and oiled skin and a light blue oxford shirt two sizes too big, the clerk barely smiled.

Alfred filled the void with his own salesman of the year smile and pulled open the snaps of his brand-new parka and said in his Franklin City Chamber of Commerce Businessman of the Year Acceptance Speech voice, "Its a good one out there, huh?"

The clerk pulled back one corner of his smile just a bit and looked down at his computer screen and asked, "Do you have a reservation?"

"I don't," Alfred said, "but I do need a room for the wife and I. Don't think we're going to get any further in this mess."

That line he had been practicing ever since the Rockies were but a shadowy sliver on the horizon and the first flakes began to skitter across his windshield.

"Unfortunately," the clerk said, "we are all full tonight."

"Full, huh?"

"Yessir."

"Nothing at all? I mean, its just the missus and I. We just need one bed."

"I'm sorry, sir."

It happened that as the clerk drew back his lips and rolled them in against his teeth to offer an apologetic yet not wholly committed frown, that the outer door of the office swung open and Gail's voice huffed, "Alfred, I don't care what room you get as long as it has a bath and hot water. I need a soak," and then there was the slide and clunk of her suitcase's plastic wheels being drug across the threshold.

Alfred squeezed his eyes shut and lamented silently to himself.

The clerk looked back down to his computer screen.

"Surely you have something."

"I'm afraid not. The weather really brings them in, you know. And we have a convention."

"Damn."

A young lady, rosy-cheeked with strawberry blonde curls spilling over the shoulders of her black blazer, walked in from a side door with a thin sheaf of paper in her hands that she spread out across a table in the corner that read, WELCOME SHRINERS.

"Hello," she said in the most spirited, brightest of professional greetings. "How are you today? Welcome to the Piedmont Inn."

"Really need a room," Alfred said as he was joined by his wife.

"Wonderful," the lady said. "I'm sure Malcolm can help you with whatever you need."

"Unfortunately," Malcolm repeated, "we are all full tonight."

"What?" Gail hissed. "Great!"

"Oh, thats too bad," the young woman said. She didn't quite stick out her bottom lip. "Nothing?" she asked Malcolm.

The boy looked back to his computer screen and tapped a few buttons and scooted the mouse around and scrunched up one corner of his mouth and shook his head and said, "Afraid not." He emphasized the fact with lifted shoulders and lifted hands.

The lid was lifted on Gail's deep well of ire.

"Gaddamnit, Alfred. What are we going to do? We're never going to get back on the highway. Its already getting dark. We going to sleep in the car?"

Alfred didn't address his wife with eyes or words. He heard the clunk of her suitcase smacking the tile. He heard her breathe.

"We really don't care what kind of room it is," he said. "It doesn't even have to be clean. I'll clean it. A closet."

"Oh, stop it, Alfred," Gail said and pushed past him.

"Look," she said to Malcolm, "I know how it works. I know you have something."

The young lady joined them at the counter and tried to interject, but Gail only ignored her.

"We have cash and are right here ready to spend it."

"The rooms are all taken, ma'am. I couldn't-"

"Do you expect us to go out there-"

"Gail, please, there is no need-"

She threw up her hand and Alfred dutifully closed his mouth.

"You had your chance," she said, then returning her attention back to the clerk, "Do you expect us to go out there and sleep in our car? To freeze to death?"

"Gail, if they don't have a room, they-"

"Alfred! I have already pulled my suitcase out of the car. I walked all the way up here through the snow. A blizzard. We are getting (and then turning her attention first slowly across the still-beaming face of the young lady and settling deadly on Malcolm's eyes) a room!"

"I'm sorry," Alfred said. "Anything, really."

"One second," the young lady said.

She stepped back from the desk and went through the door through which she had appeared and then reappeared around the other side of the desk. She fiddled with the computer and then pulled Malcolm toward her and they turned from the couple and began whispering.

Gail gave her husband a very triumphant look, but he was watching the two in front of him. Watching as the young woman slid her slightly plump, red-tipped fingers lightly over Malcolm's hand and how he let then intertwine with his and how they squeezed together. And then he thought of his wife's pale, boney claws and the slight yellow tinge of her unpainted nails.

The two turned back to face Gail and Alfred. They both smiled, and then Malcolm walked away and the young lady said, "Here is what I can do."

"I thought so," Gail said.

"We have one room."

Her voice had lost its bubble and settled into business.

"We had an older woman who checked in three days ago. She paid for an entire week. Thing is, she dropped off her key yesterday morning and said she would be back to get it, but she hasn't shown back up. I will give you the key and you can stay in the room tonight, but only tonight, and you must leave early."

"You sure you won't get into trouble?" Alfred asked.

"As long as you vacate the room early, and you don't tell anyone."

"For a cheap rate, I assume," Gail said.

"It will cost you $200."

"200?!"

"Its fine," Alfred said, and plopped down his credit card.

Just then, Malcolm returned with a stack of sheets and dropped them on the counter.

"You'll want to change the bed."







2.




The room was at the back end and at the far side of the motel and it took Alfred two trips through the now foot and a half of snow to retrieve all the luggage. Each time he took a pull from his flask at the car.

He nearly tripped over the small hill of snow that had gathered against the door.

"Please try not to break anything, Alfred. I wouldn't want to have to pay that bitch any more money."

He took a long slug before entering the room.

What bit of positivity Alfred had planned on holding onto to get through the night received a deathblow once he entered the room. The musty smell of the damp air clamped at his chest. He kept his head down and moved into the bedroom, his eyes tracking a dark arching stain running from the bathroom. It was a small room with a high ceiling. There was a single, uncovered bulb screwed into it. The only window was a small portal too far up the wall to see anything out of it. Beside the bed and a corner desk with a bulbless lamp, the only other furniture in the room was a tall sort of chifforobe that took up most of the wall opposite the bed. Alfred tried the knob to store the luggage in it, but it was locked and he could see no mechanism to unlock it.

And there was something else in the room. He thought maybe it was the lighting, or maybe the residual effects of his wife's little tirade back in the office. They always left him feeling a bit drained and frazzled. Of course it had to be the poor shape of the room, but something else had settled over him. A kind of darkness or a sadness that was like a real weight baring down in his legs, piled up on him as if it were trying to push him into the ground. There were plenty of reasons he may be feeling that way. There was the move. That was definitely to be considered The separation from home and business was a serious thing. There was also the stress of driving through a blizzard. There was the fact that they had been clearly, unequivocally ripped off by the motel. But still, there was something more he couldn't quite put his hand on, beside the emotion of it. Something that had hit him fast, but was deep in him as if it had been there all the time. The muscle, the tissue, the blood, it all felt weighted by it and coursing through him and he fought just to turn his thoughts from it.

"Good thing we got off the road," Gail said in THAT voice. "We may have really had to suffer."

"We'll be fine, dear. Its better than being stuck out in the snow."

"Ugh," she moaned. "Just being in this room, I feel depressed. Is it the lighting?"

"Its not the most optimal of settings, I agree, but surely we can make the most of it."

He sat next to his wife on the bed and ran his hand across her back. It was no mystery to him why he adored her so much. Even after all the years they had spent together, and even for all her quirks, her incessant moods, he still thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. One touch, and the tantrum from only a few moments before was forgot.

"I'm usually not seasonally affected, Alfred, but its like the very gloom of the storm out there is sinking into my bones."

"Don't be gloomy," Alfred said, and kissed the bare length of her neck. He let his hand slide down her back and cup her waist and then kissed lightly the spot behind her ear where she liked to be kissed.

"Do you not feel it too?"

"I only feel you," he said. He brought his fingers up gently over her ribs because that always tickled her and he wanted to hear her laugh.

"No, Alfred."

She pushed his hand away.

"I really feel lousy."










3.

But lousy wasn't the right word. It didn't touch on the feeling well enough. Indeed she felt as if the dimness of the outside, the murky haze of the cold and the snow, had penetrated her somehow. As if the storm itself had an emotion, and like a drop of venom in the blood, its cold peril coursed slowly through her. Gail Richtoff was a confident woman. A resolute woman. Sadness was not an emotion she suffered to be a part of her countenance. Life had taught her at least that strength. Her emotions were hers. Subjects of her will. She prided herself on the fact that she was not one of those wishy-washy little girls thrown about by her whims and her hormones She did not wallow in self-pity precisely because she did not let herself fall victim to the faults of others. Others, that is, besides her husband. He was, as the present situation showed, an oaf and supremely spineless. But he was loving and dedicated and a smart business man and not one of those gregarious, fraternal machismos who sat around the office all day soaking up the mysogeny of his partners. Fools who feel they must dominate their wives. She knew, because she had met them all. Gail Evangeline Carter Richtoff was not to be dominated. Not by a man and certainly not by these emotions impinging on her serenity and comfort.

"I'm going to take my bath, Alfred," she said as he only slightly cowered form her rejection. "I'm sure I'll feel fine after."

He tipped her chin toward him and smiled and kissed her and said, "I'm sure you will," and let his hand fall away purposefully so that it glanced across her breast.

She smiled because it was what she was supposed to do and hated that it was so.

The bathroom was lit the same as the bedroom. A single bulb. This one was screwed into a socket above a mirrorless medicine cabinet, and, because of the cracked and peeling paint, cast a spiderweb of shadows across the walls. They were yellowed only slightly more than the tiled floor. Where there was grout at all, it had grown black with mold and dirt. Through each inch-wide square ran a blackened crack in some form or other.

Typical, she thought. Shiny and new on the outside. Absolutely disgusting on the inside.

She pulled a towel from the rack and laid it across the floor by the tub and sat on its edge and started the water.

It disheartened Gail that she had to turn down Alfred's advances. She had watched her mother, every but as forthright as Gail had turned out to be, turn cold toward her father and she did not want to be THAT kind of woman either. The cold fish that treated her sexuality as an economy. As if sex were gold. Her affections the capitol. Her body a bank account. She thought it was a foolish sort of control. A last resort for a weak mind. Besides, she had no reason to fend him off. He was actually very good in bed. Respectfully lecherous. Poetic and debased at the same time. But there was nothing in her that would have allowed her to be with him tonight. Her body itself rejected the affection. His touch was not the soft, tender effort it had always been, but a grading, clinical prodding that only promised further discomfort. Perhaps pain. It was this thing inside her. This unexplainable sadness. She knew it. But where usually will alone was enough to assuage the dimming of her light, the old way proved ineffective.

As steam began to rise from the running water, she pushed the plug into the drain, stood, and slid out of her clothes. She noticed the tone of her skin had changed. She was a pale girl, the Irish in her, and aged, but there was always a healthy, rosy calm to her skin. A warmth that kept the pallid flesh from being unsightly. It has to be this horrid light, she thought. Her skin was grey. As if her skin were a thin pellicle sheathing a pillar of ash beneath. And she felt as noxious as her skin looked. A general unhealthiness. A sloth run through her like a slow swallow of something warm.

As the years ran away from her, so did her beauty. And this is what she was left with. A pale, greying, beanpole of a body trapped in a decaying motel on the way, an exodus really, to California where everything and everyone is measured in length by beauty.

She lined her toiletries along the edge of the tub and lowered herself into the scalding water.

Ragged old woman.

She held the thought in her head and stared at the flaky white skin of her big toe as it traced along the edges of the porcelain soap dish attached to the wall.







4.

For the most part, Alfred was glad his wife had gone off to the tub. This trip had really tested the limits of what he could take from her. He loved her dearly, of that there was no doubt, but she could be a supreme bitch and needed a break.

The room was warm enough, but he wanted it to be nice and toasty when Gail got out of the bath. That, and he wanted to strip down. He had been in his winter things all day and seriously needed for his body to breathe. Searching along the walls, he could not find a thermostat. He couldn't even find a heating unit.

$200, he thought to himself.

He had to admit, many of the things Gail complained about him were true. He indeed had a soft heart. He wouldn't go so far as to describe himself as spineless like she preferred, but he was indeed soft. It wasn't that he was simple. Simple men were not as successful as he had been in business, present situation not withstanding. But he definitely lacked the bloodthirsty ruthlessness many of his colleagues had. That his wife had. Still, he would not let himself be to blame for being forced out of $200 for this shabby, barely-adequate room. It was simple supply and demand. They needed the room, and the Piedmont Inn was the only motel in sight. Plus he was certain had Gail not been so rude and demanding they probably would not have charged them so much. He was sure it was an even greater thrill to take the money from the likes of her.

He stripped down to his undershirt and pants. The room was warm, but not that warm. He lay out a sweater and warm socks for later. He laid his shaving kit out on the desk. He pulled the flask from his coat pocket and took a draw and held up his hand and watched the shake in it lesson as the scotch enriched his blood. He took a deep breath & pushed out the lump in his throat. Two more pulls and the shake was gone altogether. One more and he stashed the flask in his shaving kit.

He tried to say to himself, I am a drunk. Wasn't that the first step? He tried to say it, but he could only say, You were a drunk. He tried to say it, but he got lost in the memory of his father tumbling into his bedroom at night. A wobbly, wide shadow in the hallway light, he would stand in the middle of the room mumbling some indiscernible, thick tongued dreck. Something like a story, something with a lesson to be learned, but in a long string of crescendoes like a pointed complaint. A complaint that would wear him out and he would have to take a seat on the rug in the middle of the room, and then finally lay down. Alfred tried to say, I am a drunk, but he could only think of how loud his father snored, passed out in the middle of the room, and the hours spent trying to wake the old man up so that he could get some sleep. He tried to say, I am a drunk, but all he could say is, I am just like you.

Down to his taste in scotch. Expensive scotch and cheap beer. First the smoke then douse the flames.

He tried to say it, but couldn't, and then he couldn't stop the thoughts. The embarrassment that occupied so much of his time with his father. The frustration of trying to wake him or trying to get him to the car. The thoughts of being called, "The Boy Hen," in front of all those men when his mother sent him to collect her husband before he drank up the rent.

"Ah," he would say when the young Alfred came through the door. "The boy hen has come pecking around again. Let's raise a toast to the boy hen, fellas," and all those thick, hairy arms up in the air. He would try to quietly, discreetly ask his father to come home with him. That his MOTHER wanted him to come home. Lord knows Alfred could care less if the old man came home or not. But his father, rosycheeked and grinning ear to ear and stinking, would put his face to the boy's as he tried to talk so quietly, and then erupt, to the laughter and applause of the crowd, GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE... and Alfred had to stand there and take it. To wait until the laughter died down. Until he tried to ask again. Please - GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE...

Invariably, the boy would just have to go wait in the car until the old man decided to leave, or got thrown out, and then there was the protracted ordeal of wrangling the beast into the car. He would gobble all the way home.

Alfred lay back on the stiff mattress (200) to stretch out his cramping back and try to rid himself of the sound of it. The gobble. But it could only be replaced by another memory. He wished he had never started. He wished he could learn to just drink. To enjoy at least that.

From where he lay, the light overhead beamed down into his face. He decided that when it was time to sleep, he would toss a shoe and shatter the bulb. At least Gail would get a kick out of that. He would love hear her laugh. It always got her in the mood.

He went back to the shaving kit and pulled out the flask and took another drunk for his sore bones and then another and then another purely for the drunk.

He wondered how much of the soreness wasn't just from being uptight. It was impossible for Alfredo Manzo Baptiste III to relax. A real stick in the mud, Gail liked to say. A stick in the mud until he had his drinks, her her pill, and then...

He wished she would get out of the tub.

One more swig and he stashed the flask again and put himself back across the bed. The light beaming down into his face, he realized that was where the heat was coming from. A warmth not unlike the warmth of the sun. He wished it was her that was warming him, though. Her thin body pressed against his. The delicate tremble of her heart no matter where he lay his hand. The feel of her breathing. Life filling her up. The taste of her tongue. Her fingers. Her flesh.







5.

When he awoke, the light overhead was out. He shivered, as a chill had begun to settle into him, and he assumed that was what awoke him. What really woke him was that when, in his sleep, he reached out as he often did to feel the warm body that had slept beside him for 23 years, the body wasn't there, and he awoke in fright.

He stood and pulled on his sweater and said, "Lil' Bit?" (His name for her) "I'm freezing."

She did not answer.

He walked back to the bed to make sure she was covered up and that was when he realized she was not in the bed.

He sat on the edge of the mattress and wiped the sleep from his eyes an called out, "Lil?"

She did not answer.

The light in the bathroom was still on. A cold, pale light cutting a thin frame around the closed door. It gave the thin, musty Colorado air a faint, silvery cast. Made the room seem infinite.

"Lil, you alright in there."

Surely she's not still in the tub, he thought.

He walked to the door and pressed his cheek against the wood and knocked lightly and asked lightly, "Bit? You in there?"

She did not answer.

The door knob turned and the door gave and he let it fall open slowly. There was a smell coming from inside. Something like rust and sweat and the way a body smells in the morning that he did not like. It scared him.

The first thing he saw was the blood pooled under her dangling arm like a red, glinting shadow of it, and in the middle, the jagged hunk of porcelain that had been the soapdish attached to the wall at the foot of the tub.

Alfred could only whimper like all the breath had gone out of him. Whimper and move into the room and avoid the blood across the tile as if it were vital and could be put back into her.

The water in the tub was brown, an oily sheen formed along the surface in which swirled pockets of blood and soap and substances not immediately recognizable. The flesh had slipped and bunched into watery wrinkles. The red beneath her eye lids shown as if the flesh had been slit. Her lips were thin and blue and pulled into an off-kilter frown. A long strand of spittle streamed from the lowest corner and down her slack chin where it formed its own fluid pocket on the water's oleaginous skin.

Alfred wrapped her arm in one of the towels from the rack and gripped tight around her wrist and pulled her from the tub. His foot slipped in the blood and thumped against the base of the tub. He pulled her against him and whispered her name and wrapped his arm around her. Her cold, waxy skin seeped through the spaces between his fingers, the bulk of her body sliding toward the floor. He redoubled his hold on her, pulled the last towel form the rack and walked her into the bedroom, her heels sliding through the blood and doubling the tracks smeared into the carpet. He lay her on the bed and wrapped her other lacerated wrist with the towel and covered her with the blanket from the bed.

He whispered her name again and tried to open her eyes. The waterlogged lids, puffy and blue, bunched up around his fingers revealing red, could eyes. The depths of their green had gone. She wasn't breathing. Her heart was not beating.

Even with the bathroom door open, the light was scant. Still, he looked, but could not find a phone. He went to the front door and opened it and stood in amazement at what was before him. A wall of snow clear past the top of the jamb, thick enough that only a trickle of blue light came through the top.

He jumped at the wall, ready to dig through, but it was frozen solid. He pounded his fists into it. At the top, along the bottom, the entire thing a solid block of ice. Not a fleck gave way, though he pounded and pounded until the skin over his knuckles split and left across the face of the block small dapples of blood.

He pulled the desk from the wall and bashed it against the locked chifforobe until one of the legs came free.

"Hold on, Lil Bit," he said, and returned to the ice wall.

He batted at it, but it wouldn't give. He plunged the sharp, split end of it fruitlessly into the slick block of ice. Not a thing he could find in the room would produce the slightest blemish in the frozen barricade, but he exhausted himself int eh effort anyway.

He through himself back into the room and pounded the walls and begged the cement for help. He tried to climb up to the small window but could only get close enough to see that it too was covered in a sheet of ice and no further. Next he began to work at the locked door of the chifforobe, if for no other reason than it was the last thing left in the room to conquer. He bashed one side loose and tore it open and found it full of empty suitcases of varying sizes and colors. On the top shelf he found only a single sheet of brittle, yellowing paper with a string of faded, illegible words written across it. He dropped the paper and fell to the floor and sobbed until his throat felt like it was coated in broken glass.

Sent off into that frayed, grievous netherworld, Alfred again whispered her name. Gail, like a dare to the darkness, to death itself, to prove its finality.

It did not answer.

He wiped his eyes with the yellowed paper and fished his flask out of the shaving kit toppled onto the floor. He faced the wall. He was unable to face her corpse. He took two long pulls and coughed, almost choked, and wiped at his chin with the paper still in hand. That was when he noticed it. On the back of the page, along one side, a long list of type written letters. Some three, some four, and some five letters long, but they formed no words he recognized. What he noticed though, across one of the haphazard creases where he had crumpled it in his hands were the letters GECR. They were her initials. It could have been dismissed as nothing if, when he uncrumpled the paper, he hadn't seen just below those letters, the letters of his own name, AMR.

"What the fuck is going on."

He said it out loud.

The list of letters, of names, took up the entire length of the lefthand side of the paper, and their's were a little more than two thirds down. One right after the other. There was nothing to explain the paper. Nothing typed on it but the letters. And on the reverse side the fading script of three nonsense words. He tried to sound them out.

"Klaatu. Barada. Nikto."

The light above flickered and Alfred gasped. He spoke the three words again. "Klaatu. Barada. Nikto."

The light surged to life.

The blanket slid away from Gail, exposing her naked, bloodless body to the warm light streaming down. It grew in its brilliance and its heat. The very light itself seemed to swirl, streaming from the center where it was too bright to look anymore, down to the body where the dead flash began to blister and bubble.

"No," Alfred called out, and he threw himself over his wife's corpse, but the light burned him too. Burned him so severely that he had to withdraw. All he could do was watch as the skin boiled, liquified, and a evaporated. The viscera exposed, it too succumbed to the heat. The organs and the veins and the muscles overlapping, until she was reduced to only bones, and they too succumbed, falling to brittle ash and then was swept up in the swirling light so that it formed a columnar helix that disappeared into the ceiling.

Alfred was overcome. Insane. For only the truly mad, the madness of love and the loss of it, could afford a man to offer his body to the fire such as he did. He stood square in the middle of it as it swirled down from the emblazoned, incalculable ether. And in it, as it liquified his flesh, seared the long, fibrous roots of his nervous system, he made not a sound. His muscles remained unflinching until they were sent up into the pyre, and then he too disappeared into an ashen minaret, swirling gracefully to nothingness, absolute and eternal.


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