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Apr/May 2013 Fiction

One Night in the Comfort Inn

by Holly Teresa Baker

Artwork by Clinton McKay

Artwork by Clinton McKay


Room 219

The first thing Sam does when he enters 219, before kicking off his wingtips or cranking up the space heater, is the first thing he always does. He opens all six dresser drawers and runs a flat hand along their ceilings; he shakes loose the leaves of the Gideon Bible; he gets on his hands and knees and presses his face against the wall to see behind the headboard; and he feels the wall on the inside of the closet, that space right above the slated door where no one can see without stepping into the closet altogether and turning around 180 degrees. The geography of the room is new but unsurprising, and hiding places are few. He quickly exhausts them all, and like usual, he finds nothing. Oh, well. A disappointment, but not a surprise. With a sigh, he clicks the large red button on the top of the remote, and the TV snaps and hums to life. While skimming channels, he checks his watch: 7:04. Tonight it's Wheel of Fortune, followed by Jeopardy.

He adjusts the volume to fill the boxy room. It is just loud enough to be heard in the hallway, to invite the attention of trivia lovers or curious passersby hoping for a chat, but not too loud to justify anyone's complaint. Tossing the remote to the bed and stepping out of his shoes, he wonders if it is too early to order pizza. This time of night, those pizza boys are always so busy, always in such a rush to hand off the box, collect the tip, and leave. He really should wait for a slower hour, but today he had worked straight through lunch, and his stomach is already twisting itself into knots of hunger. Readying for a long night, he puts on the coffee pot and dials the number advertised on the back of his key card. One medium pepperoni with an ETA of 7:45. While he waits, he works.

The door is too heavy to stand open on its own, so he wedges a pair of mated argyle socks between the bottom of the door and the worn purple-and-mauve paisley carpet. Across the hall, 218 and 220 stand mutely side by side. 220 already dons a Do Not Disturb sign on its brass handle. It is the one object in the room Sam never touches, not here or anywhere. Why would he? He thinks it is a terrible sign. With the door stretched open, he situates himself at the too-small desk, already positioned awkwardly in the too-small room, and angles the chair toward hallway. He smoothes the strings of his salt-and-pepper hair across his spotted pate, loosens his tie, and perches a pair of bifocals on the end of his nose. They settle heavily into the old depressions. Then he pulls out his laptop and clicks opens a desktop folder, a subfolder, a sub-subfolder, the Anderson account, longing once again for the days of sheets of paper in an accordion folder, a ledger book, and a calculator. Staring at a screen for too long tires his eyes. He begins to work, one ear to TV, one eye to the door.

Each time a body passes in the hallway, he looks up, ready with a smile. Each time, his hand half lifts, anticipating a wave. But the passersby keep their noses pointed to the far end of the hall; some flick their eyes into the room but never turn their heads, pretending not to have noticed the room beyond the open door or to have heard the big wheel spinning. Is there an R? Three Rs! For half an hour, doors click open and shut up and down the hallway; silence refills the long, vacant space. His dappled hands fall back to the keyboard. Type. Type. Type.

Alex Trebek is introducing the returning champion when he hears the approach of a short parade of roller suitcases and chatter. A high school volleyball team, green-and-yellow jackets and hair all in ponytails, step into the frame and out again. One of the girls slows, then glances into his room. Her frizzy blond hair is escaping its ponytail and frames her face. Sam decides she looks like a sunflower. She reminds him of the girl from the bus stop, two summers before, who had taught him how to clean out the inbox on his new phone, who had chatted with him for 20 minutes before her bus arrived. They had shaken hands then. She had been so lovely. Just lovely. He smiles and waves. His lips part. But another girl has come up behind the sunflower. She sees Sam in his rolled sleeves, loosened tie, and uninvited grin, and laughs.

What a creep!

She tugs on her friend's arm and drags her out of the frame. Sam's hands fall back to the keyboard.

Double jeopardy now. The categories are U.S. Presidents, Double-Letter Geography, The Wizard of Oz, Islands, Simon and Garfunkle, and Before & After. Sam shakes his head pitifully when all three contestants fail to finish the lyrics. What is and no one touches me? He awards himself four hundred dollars. Type type type.

For a time, he forgets the open doorway and gives himself over to the Anderson account—working the stats, charting the fiscal year, reporting the advances. Massaging his knuckles. Tomorrow he'll present it to the board. They'll listen without interest, tell him well done, and send him back inside the little two-door Oldsmobile, back on the ever-stretching road. Next week to Terre Haute, the week after that to Fort Wayne, to present reports to the different branches, as he always does. Another hotel, another hotel room, but they are all the same, really.

Outside of 219, someone is looking in; he feels the eyes against his cheek like fingertips. When he turns, he sees a kid, five or six, towheaded and wearing Notre Dame's gold and blue. The boy's toes touch the line dividing inside from outside, but he is leaning forward, and his head enters the room to look around. Sam smiles and lifts his hand.

Well, hello there. He turns fully in his chair and leans forward himself, elbows on knees. What's your name?

The kid opens his mouth, but Sam hears the voice of a woman.

Colin, get away from there.

A woman hefting a large dufflebag enters the frame. When she sees Sam, she grabs her kid's hand and mutters to him (or is it really to Sam?), It's rude to stare. She drags him away and down the hall.

Sam finishes off the coffee and rises to brew another pot just as Alex is announcing the final jeopardy category: Comic Book History. His back is to the hallway when someone knocks on the open door. He sees the reflection of a pizza box in the mirror.

Come in! Come in! I just need to get my wallet.

The pizza boy, a stringy kid with a row of pimples across his brow and sagging jeans, hesitates at the dividing line. He steps warily into the room as though he expects the floor to fall away beneath him. That's $12.95. He lifts his laden arm to indicate the pizza.

That's right, $12.95, says Sam. Go ahead and put it on the bed while I dig out my wallet.

The pizza boy does as he's told and shoves his hands inside his pockets. For something to do, he watches the commercials for Gold Bond and Rascal scooters. Sam is slow in finding his wallet—it's in the pocket of the jacket he draped on the back of his chair.

Know anything about comic books?

The pizza boy looks startled.

What?

Comic books. Kid your age, I'd imagine you read comic books all the time.

Not really.

The kid shifts his weight back and forth, left foot to right. He shoves his hands a little deeper inside his pockets. His shoulders are slowly drawing up into a hunch.

Final jeopardy, says Sam, nodding to the TV. It's a comic book question. I don't know much about it. But you kids, you're smart. Let's see if you can get it.

I have all these deliveries—

Won't take a moment. Kid your age... Let's see if you can best the brains.

Sam stands between the pizza boy and the door. He holds his wallet open and sticks his finger inside like it's a bookmark, but he doesn't extract any bills. The commercials are still running.

I'm here on business, he says. When the pizza boy doesn't say anything, he continues. They send me all over Indiana and Michigan. Sometimes Illinois. But this is my first time here. You grow up here?

The pizza boy looks past him to the open door.

Yeah, sorta.

Then I guess you know the town pretty well.

Maybe.

Better than me, at least! Sam laughs. So tell me, what's there to do in a town like this?

Nothing.

Oh, come on. Young kids like you. What do you do for fun?

The pizza boy shrugs. There's a movie theater down by the levee. Look, I should get going—

Wait, wait! It's back.

Alex is reading the answer now: On the cover of the 1941 first issue of this comic book, the title hero punches Hitler in the jaw. Players, good luck. Then the iconic music starts.

Nineteen forty-one comic, Sam repeats. Well, whataya say? Got the right question?

Man, I don't know. I don't even care about comic books. It's $12.95, cash or credit.

Now, now, if you don't want to take a guess. Let's just see who gets it. You want to sit down? You can have a slice of the pizza. Won't take a minute.

The pizza boy panics. Forget it, man, I'll take the hit. He shoves past Sam and takes long strides toward the door.

Hey! Sam follows him into the hall. Hey, now, no need to be like that. I pay for my food. Here. He pulls out a twenty and hands it to the pizza boy, who snatches it, turns, and speeds down the hallway. Sam shouts after him, That's okay, the rest is your tip!

Disheartened, he returns to his room.

What is Captain America? That's correct. Let's see your wager.

Sam removes the wedged socks and lets the door fall closed.

 

Room 106

Maggie steps out of the shower and wraps the too-small white towel around herself, pressing flat her breasts, tapering her waist, barely covering her butt. She faces the mirror and cuts across its fogged surface with her fingers, revealing in the dripping streaks a late 30-something with a fake winter tan and California-blue eyes. That's what Radley had told her, some 20 years before. Radley, her first boyfriend, her last love. All these years later, she has never forgotten the compliment. Despite the onset of crows' feet and the promise of sunspots as a frame, she still thinks they are her best feature. Her eyes. California blue.

She stares at them a moment longer, smiles to see if they can still sparkle, but the steam is beginning to overtake her reflection again. Soon she is just a ghost in the glass. Turning away from herself, she twists her wet, bleach-blond hair into a bun on the crown of her head and opens the bathroom door to let the heat escape. Her eyes find the digital clock on the nightstand: 8:09. Still early, and she has nothing to do. At least tonight she is out of the apartment with its leaky faucet, its spider infestation, its freezer stuffed with frozen Lean Cuisines, its blank 2012 calendar on the wall, the one with photos of Places to Visit Before You Die, waterfalls and cathedrals and white-sand beaches. Since the cat ran away, she no longer feels any pleasure walking through her own door; one is never greeted by a houseplant. And here, in this town, there are no other doors to walk through. Not for her, unless she rents one. Sixty dollars a night.

The curtains are open, giving her a view of the darkened parking lot. Headlights slide across the glass. Beyond that, she can see the lit signs of a Sinclair and a Steak and Shake. Everything else is black, and if someone stood on the outside looking in, watching her move through the illuminated room, how would she know? What would someone want to see? With feigned nonchalance, she moves toward the window to draw the curtains closed, and with each step she allows her hips to sway. She coyly tucks a wet blond strand behind an ear, and with one hand on the edge of the curtain, she rubs the other against her neck and rolls her head, as though weary from a long day—this shows how long and slender her neck can be.

She pulls closed the sheer curtain and leaves the drapes—the ones that block out the light—standing open: the illusion of privacy, but really, an invitation for voyeurs. She stretches out on the bed.

She imagines being on the outside looking in at herself, through the window, admiring the trimness of her exposed legs, the bare collarbone, shoulders, and neck; she imagines a man, a stranger. He is wishing that the towel will slip, or that she will begin to undress. He would want her, want her so badly he would count the windows, end to end, and then come inside and count the doors. Breath halted, heart racing, fingers twitching, he would knock. Softly. And she, naïve and unsuspecting, would answer. She would forget that she wore only a towel barely long enough to shield her most intimate parts, above and below. She would forget to check the peephole. She would think only who could that be? and pull open the door she never chained, never bolted. Her Do Not Disturb sign would hang on the wrong side of the door.

He would not bother with words. Introductions only slowed things down. Instead, he would push wide the door and step his way into the room. His mouth would stop her scream. He'd kick the door shut even as he drew her body close, and in the ensuing struggle the towel would drop, and she would feel his hands on her, all over her, that touch, that connection—violent but real. The pain would tell her she was alive after all. She would sob, tell him to stop, but he never would. He would slap her instead, tell her shut up, press his thumbs into her throat, and the headlights would slide across the glass, never stopping.

The story would appear the next day on the evening news and then in the Sunday paper: Woman found dead in local hotel.

The police have no suspects, the field reporter would announce, standing outside the hotel while cops milled about in the background, back and forth around the yellow tape. According to hotel records, the victim, a local woman, checked into the hotel at approximately seven o'clock. Witnesses say she was alone. There were no signs of forced entry.

They would show her photograph on stations from Indianapolis to Chicago to Detroit, and folks would frown and admire her blue eyes and say Such a shame and Why was she all alone? and She should have known better. After failing to find and inform nearest kin, they would release her name—Margaret Jeffers. It would be weeks, months maybe, before they could find anyone who could say, Actually, we called her Maggie. But by then it would be too late. People would be used to thinking of her as Margaret, and it was a fitting name, too, because before long the unsolved murder would become a thing of large small-town folklore and children's ghost stories, and no one would want to call a dead woman Maggie. Ah, but Margaret. Margaret was from a different age, a tragic yesterday, a time best not thought of. Still, the children would keep her alive, telling tales of the ghost that haunts the hotel by the tracks, of how guests who stayed in room 106 could sometimes see her image behind the sheer curtains or the streaks of her fingers on the bathroom mirror. The children would talk about a woman with bright blue eyes who wandered down the hotel corridors past midnight—but look again and she would disappear. No one would ever really see her. In this way, she would become a ghost on both sides of the grave.

Maggie opens her eyes and stares up at the flaking stucco ceiling. She sighs. The heater has made the room uncomfortably warm, but she does not feel like getting up. She doesn't feel like doing anything at all. She opens the towel, and waits.

 

Room 233

Even though his father-in-law is dying, David does not excuse his wife's stony silence. She had not had such an excuse before the heart attack, after all, so why did she think she could use it now? Settling into the room off the interstate, he tries to trick her into conversation—What time should we leave tomorrow? Do you think it might snow tonight? Is this your toothbrush or mine?—but the children are making any sort of connection difficult.

Geri jerks hard the zipper on her duffle bag and cracks a nail, exacerbating her already unpleasant mood. She is through reasoning with any of them.

You're sleeping on the floor tonight, and I don't want to hear another word about it.

David watches his son throw his face into the pillow on the floor between the two queen mattresses and force out a pathetic whimper. At five, Colin is their youngest and most dramatic child. His bottom lip juts out in a frown of protest, but he knows his mother is not to be crossed when she gets this way, and he relents. The girls get the bed. Despite himself, David appreciates his son's uncharacteristic show of restraint.

But Ellie, the oldest at nine years, is not so wise.

I don't see why we have to go to bed so early, she says, her voice huffy. She is already lying down, facing the window. It's barely nine o'clock!

Geri yanks a toiletry case from the duffle bag and casts David a look that says You handle it.

I'm taking a shower, she says. It's the most she has said to him all day. Moments later, the bathroom door slams shut and the fan begins to whir.

As always, Geri takes night showers; David takes morning. He had once thought it was a sign of compatibility. Now, he knows it's just another marker of their differences.

We have an early start tomorrow, honey, you know that, says David. He rubs his tired eyes—every time he closes his eyes he sees the endless black stretch of the I-80 freeway. We need to be back on the road again by five.

While Geri showers, David gets the kids to settle down, makes sure they are warm enough, and turns off the light. He undresses in the dark. Then he folds back the covers, but he doesn't lie down. He sits on the edge of the bed, listening to the steady sound of the running shower, the whirring fan, the humming heater. Not for the first time, he wonders whether he had made a mistake in bringing the whole family. Geri had said she would go alone, she wanted to go alone, but he had insisted. This may be the last time the kids get to see their grandfather, he had reasoned. The undertone had said something else: This is me being supportive. This is me being compassionate. This is the me you want. Isn't it?

This is not his father-in-law's first heart attack, and it won't be his last. David had learned not to make jokes about what a lifetime of two-packs-a-day will bring a man, as he had with the first one. He had learned not to invoke God's mercy to a woman who came from a family without faith, as he had with the second. In the succeeding years, he had learned to be silent. Now, he intends to be stalwart. He will sit on the edge of the bed and wait for her. He will whisper How are you feeling? and touch her hand with his fingertips and hope that she touches him back.

The shower stops, and he hears her pull back the curtain. Still, several minutes pass until she turns off the bathroom light before opening the bathroom door. She is mindful enough not to disturb the children, and he has hope. Her shadow moves toward the bed and pauses when she notices him watching her.

Hey, he says. The word sound like a sigh, like the exhaled air after holding in breath for a long time.

The shadow moves again, around to the other side of the bed. She steps lightly around Colin, who has quickly fallen asleep.

How are you—?

It's late.

She lifts the covers and crawls into them, hugging them firmly around her shoulders. She shivers once, and is still.

For a moment he just stares, a sharp word on the tip of his tongue, a sarcastic goodnight. But he swallows instead. He lies back, beneath the covers. The bed is cold.

Despite his weariness, he cannot sleep, and despising the imprint of the unending road on the inside of his eyelids, he does not close his eyes. He looks, instead, at the back of Geri's head in the dark. He wants to crack it open and crawl around inside, to sift through her mind—thoughts, fears, loves, hatreds—and see where she has placed him, and how long he has been there.

He wants to reach out, across the cool space, and touch her, fingers down her spine, palm against her waist, once so narrow, now thick. He doesn't mind. There is heat there. It could be exciting, a challenge to not wake the children. But then, there would not be much challenge in it for her. She is good at silence. She has been practicing it for a long time now, longer than him. He is used it, her stillness, the way she just lies there, or just sits at the kitchen table, or just stands on the back porch, saying nothing, doing nothing, indifferent to the world and him in it. He is used to her unparted lips and unfocused eyes, the way she can look at him—if she looks at him—without seeing him at all. Nothing he does mattered. Nothing touches her. He would be pouring himself into her, opening himself wide to her, talking, touching, screaming, and she would respond with silence, as though she were watching a clock, reciting an internal countdown. Ten. Nine. Eight. Bearing it a little longer. Seven. Six. Five. Waiting to be released from this obligation. Four. Three. Two...

David ignores the Do Not Disturb sign. He crosses the divide and touches her back. He wants to whisper into her ear, Remember how we used to move together, that warm, gentle, easy rhythm? Before he was moving alone, before they stopped moving at all? He wants to say, Remember me? We used to be married.

Geri's foot finds his leg. She pushes him away.

He wants to push her back, to pull the covers away, grip her shoulder, turn her to face him. He wants to take her head in his hands, shake her until she cries, then hold her until she stops. He wants the passion and release of a struggle that leaves long red streaks down his arms and teeth marks on his neck. Just say it: I feel you! I feel you!

Instead, he turns over. The clock reads 9:32.

 

Room 312

Okay okay okay. You're okay. You can do this.

Hands splayed on either side of the sink, Troy stares at his pasty reflection. A single bead of sweat drops from the tip of his nose and directly into the drain. He grabs a white washcloth off the rack and pats his shiny face.

Hey, you doing okay in there?

Fine, fine. You're doing fine.

Sure! He winces as his voice squeaks out the word and stops himself from kicking the side of the tub. Be right out!

He hears her retreat from the bathroom door and sit on the bed. Or maybe she's lying on it, getting ready, slipping off the shoes, the stockings, the garters—who is he kidding, she isn't wearing garters. She isn't some call girl or hooker or anything. This isn't some show. No, it's a... a... meet-up, of sorts. No big deal, a consensual get-together between two adults (he can call himself an adult, right?—eighteen is legal, after all) looking for, well, a one-time get-together. People must do things like this all the time. Sure they do. Surely she does. She is wearing a jean miniskirt, even though it can't be more than 30 degrees outside. Just to show off her legs, probably just to feel sexy. And no stockings, from what he could tell. Definitely no garters.

He can't believe she's here, that he is here. Sure, he'd been thinking about it for weeks—no, months—but when it came down to the brass tacks of it all, he never thought he'd have the stones to go through with it. Even as he had perused the Craigslist personal ads, clicking open profile after profile under Women Seeking Men and assessing how well he fit the lists of qualifications, he never imagined anything would come of it. It had been a laugh at least, a fantasy at best. Until he copied and pasted the email address from Nothing serious, just a night of fun into the To field of his email account. Then, the agony of describing himself. Just the good stuff, the features too vague to be imagined with any true clarity: brown hair, six-zero, slim. Not the skinny arms, deflated chest, absent chin. And if he didn't mention them, maybe she wouldn't even notice the close-set eyes or too-small hands. She might even remember the smudge of a mole on his right lobe as an earring.

Her reply had come within the hour: Sounds good enough for me. She told him to meet her that Friday at a hotel just off the interstate, 25 minutes from where he lived with his parents. She told him that she would have a room. Ask for Charlotte.

It had been almost too easy. He had pointed his dad's pickup truck west and seen the sign from the freeway. The girl behind the desk had given him the room number without a raised eyebrow or knowing smirk. And the door hadn't even donned a Do Not Disturb sign. In fact, it had been cracked open, just a couple of inches. And now, here he is, holed up in a hotel bathroom with a stranger on the bed.

The instant he thinks of the bed, he turns to the toilet and flips open the lid. His stomach is so knotted he wants to retch.

Get a grip, man. Get. A. Grip.

Everything all right in there? She's back at the door. Her voice startles him so badly, he jerks upright and smashes his head against the towel rack.

I'm cool, he says. I just—I'll be just a minute. I've got to... to...

Need a hand? I've got two to get you started. She laughs like a schoolgirl, coy, flirtatious, but it sounds fake, and it grates against his ears like fingernails on a chalkboard. She is working hard to seem girly, for him, but there's nothing girly about her at all. She's a woman, an in-the-flesh, been-around-the-block kind of woman. Probably has ten years on him, maybe more. She wears a purple pleather jacket. Her dull green eyes are outlined in charcoal, and her lips are the color of her jacket, of her fingernails, of her last dye job. She smells like cigarettes and cinnamon—he can smell her through the door.

No, no, I'm good. I just need... a moment.

Sure thing, lover boy.

It sounds like a taunt. A lure? He can't decide. He's never been called any kind of endearment before, not sweetie or hon or dear, except by his mother. His mother! Why does he have to think about his mother at a time like this! He shrinks down onto the floor.

Troy can't stand being inside his own skin, not now, not before now. Throughout high school, he had been the loser kid the band nerds had laughed at, the dweeb that jocks couldn't waste their time beating up, the sorry-excuse-for-a-male the girls would be mortified to be caught staring at. Even the teachers, always eager to win the popular vote, had avoided him. He was never invited to hang out after school, never went to a school dance, and certainly never had sex. Eight months past graduation, he can still hear the laughter in his head, following a confession. No one leaves high school a virgin. What did you do for four years?

He hates the word virgin. It's right up there with sissy and wuss and momma's boy. Now is the time to be a man, and if that means sleeping with a stranger (he winces), then so be it.

A sharp rapping on the door startles him up from the floor.

Hey. Hey, you getting sick in there or something?

What? No.

You planning on falling asleep in the tub?

Of course not.

Then zip up and get out here. Or don't zip up and let's get started.

His knees bob as he stands back up. Just open the door. Turn the handle. Walk through. Do it. He takes a deep breath and touches the doorknob, but when his damp palm simply slides around the knob, unable to grip, he loses his nerve once again. Why can't he be like those guys in the movies, the ones who are so suave in rolling their cars to the corner, and with a wink and a come-hither nod, dripping confidence, take the girl to a ritzy hotel without a hint of shame. (A Comfort Inn? Why hadn't she chosen the Sleep-Easy—the Sleazy, as it is known locally—at the end of the frontage road near the KOA and the cow field? It seemed more fitting.)

As he wipes the dampening washcloth across his forehead again, he notices the sign at the side of the sink: Forget anything? We're happy to help. Just call down to the lobby for extra shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrush, and razors, and we'll deliver any personal items to your room. Again, his stomach clenches. Wryly, he thinks, How about condoms? angry at himself for forgetting them—the ones he had bought in a gas station bathroom with quarters from the dashboard—left in his underwear drawer before leaving the house. What had been the point, then, of spending so much time practicing putting one on? Might... she have one?

Oh gosh, he moans over the sink.

You say something?

He stares at his pale face, gaping mouth, and buggy eyes in the mirror. He decides that he looks like a fish.

Look, kid, I drove 40 minutes in this weather. I booked the room and everything.

You want me to pay for it? he croaks.

I'm not a whore!

He had meant the room, but he can't manage to say anything at all now. His throat tightens, and his eyes begin to mist. He is frozen at the sink, loathing himself. Eventually, she gives up. Through the door, he hears her turn on the TV, hears the squeak of the bed as she settles herself there. She's watching the 11 o'clock rerun of Deal or No Deal. The clock is ticking, the audience laughing.

 

Room 219

There is no sign on the door. Still, Consuela knocks loudly and announces herself through the peephole. Hello, housekeeping! She waits a beat before sliding her service key card into the slot and pushing the door in. Morning light floods the room through widely parted curtains. Other than the gently disturbed bedding and an empty pizza box by the trashcan, there are few signs that anyone stayed the night. The occupant must have been of the rare neat-and-tidy variety. The towels are hung evenly, the countertop is clean of water spots, and even the TV remote is set on top of the unit, neatly aligned, as if it hadn't even been touched. She likes these kinds of guests—always a quick job. She grabs a spray bottle of cleaning solution, a rag, and a new roll of toilet paper and sets to work.

Her job is to scrub, to eliminate the evidence that any living, breathing human had ever occupied this space before. Guests like the illusion, best delivered through sterility, that the room is new. They want to believe that theirs are the first heads to rest on the pillows, even when they know better. No one wants to think of the hundreds of naked bodies that have stood in the same shower or sat on the same toilet or had sex in the same bed, just like no one wants to know, really, that there are bodies on the other sides of the walls doing all those things. Clean and separate and secluded. A series of individual worlds that never intersect.

Scrub'em clean, she repeats to herself, the cleaning woman's mantra.

She changes the bedding. She replaces the towels. She scrubs out the tub, rubs down the sink, wipes clean the mirror. New soap, new shampoo, new toilet paper. Dusting and vacuuming and tidying.

And then, as part of her ritual, she does the same last thing she always does. She feels the walls inside the closet, looks behind the headboard, riffles the leaves of the Gideon Bible, and runs her hand along the underside of the desk and the six dresser drawers—

The tips of her fingers brush against a piece of paper in the bottommost drawer. Finding the edge, she peels it gently from the ceiling of the drawer. It is a single sheet of lined notebook paper, folded twice, Scotch tape hanging off two ends. She removes the tape, unfolds the paper, and reads:

Sam L. Hatch—November 25, 2012—Hello out there!

Consuela knows what this is. She has found notes like it before. Not many, maybe half a dozen in her 22 years of housekeeping. It is a game people play, the ones who know the game exists, and all the housemaids know it. The longest she has seen was 12 names long, spanning eight years in a hotel in Fort Wayne, in a note Robert J. had taped to the underside of a desk:

Robert J.—April 17, 1999
Sarah—August 4, 1999—Do people still do these?
Cole and Daphne—January 29, 2000—We do!
Michelle Ransom—July 12, 2000
Phil, Theresa, and Suzi Wroblewski—September 12-13, 2000—Hello from Florida!
Jamal—March 6, 2001
Casey—June 30, 2001
J. D. Edwards—January 11, 2002—For a good time, call... Nah, I'm just kidding.
Will and Alyssa—February 14, 2002—In love.
Keegan—April 3, 2004
Renita—October 10-12, 2005
Paul and Caroline Hayes—February 5, 2007—Go Colts!

But Sam's is the first note she has discovered with only one name, with so fresh a date. She thinks about putting it back and letting the game play out, of watching it grow. It feels wrong to remove it. But if she doesn't, another girl on another shift will do it herself. Scrub'em clean. Throw away the trash, the signs of prior life, the little scraps of paper that connect stranger to stranger.

She flattens the paper on the desk and picks up the complimentary pen with the hotel logo. She makes that connection, just the one. She writes:

Hello, Sam. From Consuela—November 26, 2012.

Then she folds the paper back into its square and pockets it.

 

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