SHE’D BEEN STAYING at the Twin Pines Motel for two nights when the motel manager died. She found him in the rear office, leaned back in a swivel chair like he was catching a nap. In her hand was thirty dollars in cash for her next night’s stay. When she realized the manager was dead, she wasn’t as surprised as she could have been. Maybe because until three years ago, when she was a junior in high school, she had worked in a nursing home and saw old folks dead like this from time to time. A guy she’d worked with used to call them ploppers because it looked like they’d just plopped down and died. She’d never liked when he said this—she thought it was a cold thing to say—but now as she looked at the old motel manager, the word kept going through her head. Plopper.
She studied the man and remembered the empty feeling the sight of a dead body used to give her. It now seemed like a long time since she’d felt this. She took a deep breath and wiped her palms on her jeans. There was nothing to be done—he had been dead for a while. He was just a nice old man who probably died of a heart attack or stroke while going through his mail. On the floor was a torn envelope. Junk mail from A A R P. This seemed to her like a better way of going out than in an easy chair in a nursing home, but still not a particularly desirable end. She was at an age and a time in her life where the moment of death held the possibility of excitement or fascination.
She put the thirty dollars back in her pocket and went out to the small lobby. She wanted to take the master key, so she could get into all the rooms. A friend of hers back in Virginia was the night auditor at a similarly wood-paneled, single-storied inn along the highway where people came if their car broke down or they couldn’t afford a name-brand hotel. Back when she visited her friend at work, they used the master key to get into customers’ rooms and root through their things while they were out. Neither she nor her friend took anything—except once when her friend took a sample-sized bottle of perfume because there was no way something that small would be missed—but the glimpses into other people’s lives had been thrilling, more interesting even than the danger that came with breaking into the rooms. Once they had found a loaded handgun in an old lady’s travel bag and another time discovered that a man had two large suitcases that were completely empty, as though he had just lost everything. When she decided to take the master key from the lobby after the man died, she didn’t mean to steal anything. She just knew this was her only chance to take it and that if she waited those doors would never be open to her.
The keys hung on hooks behind the desk. She counted them, twentynine, found the one with an m engraved on it instead of a number, walked outside and opened the first room to the right to make sure the key worked. Then she went back inside the office to where the old man sat as though lost in thought, and called the police. Before leaving the office to go outside and wait for the police, she stopped in the doorway and said out loud, “Poor guy, all alone like that.”
The motel was off the highway about fifteen miles from a mid-sized town named Leawood. She had left home four days before, and this was the second motel she had stayed in since. Though she had enough money—for now—to stay in a Super 8 or Motel 6, she sought out motels like the Twin Pines. These highway motels held a certain romantic appeal to her ever since she was a little girl. Her mother would watch old movies where people stayed in similarly lousy places. Not just Psycho, but also scratchy old noirs where people at the ends of their ropes stumbled in through the rain and asked the wary motel manager if there were any rooms available, desperate just to get dry. For months she had felt a similar desperation and so these motels fit her state of mind, made her feel pursued though nobody was pursuing her.
Two state policemen came and asked her questions. She said she had never seen anyone else working at the front desk other than the old man, and she didn’t know anything beyond that. She also told them she was staying there because she had walked out on her husband. They didn’t need to know this but after she said it, she felt relief. That was the first time she had said it out loud. The younger of the two policemen nodded at the ground but the other looked her in the eye, as though to gauge if she was lying. She didn’t tell him how she had also left her five-month-old daughter.
They said she needed to leave the motel, and she argued, lying that she had paid through the end of the month and at least was entitled to a refund. She lied automatically, figuring they wouldn’t look it up. They said she could take it up with whoever took over the place next and she relented, relieved she got away with her lie even though it didn’t get her anything.
“Plenty of hotels around here,” the older policeman said when she asked where she was supposed to stay. They stared at her until she went back to her room and gathered her things. Before she left, they made her give them the key to her room, and as she handed it over the older one looked at her suspiciously. She had never been looked at like that before, his eyes placid but heavy like he knew what she was up to and didn’t care. What she had done to deserve that look she didn’t know.
That evening she drove back to the motel and parked way in the back of the lot, where her car couldn’t be seen from the highway. The other cars and trucks that had been there that morning were all gone. She let herself into her old room. For a moment she didn’t turn on the light and could hear her heart beating in her chest. The brink-of-insanity anxiousness she had felt since her daughter was born returned, and she expected the phone to ring, to shatter the silence and make her jump, but nothing happened other than some jangling in the pipes. Her name was Anne, but she had told the police it was Abby. She lied so they would have a harder time figuring out who she was, should they come looking for her. Now that lie was all she could bring to mind, as though it had been worse than stealing this motel room. Stealing, perhaps, wasn’t the right word—you can’t steal a room. But there was something wrong about what she was doing. She knew that.
SHE HAD LEFT HOME without a plan. Now she was killing time while figuring out what to do. For almost five months, ever since giving birth to her daughter, she had been overcome by a trembling unease. She had wanted so badly to be a mother, but after she returned home from the hospital and things calmed down, she didn’t feel anything when she held her daughter except the certainty that she had made an irrevocable mistake. Something was wrong with her, she knew, so she refused to tell anyone how she felt and pretended everything was normal. After four months, and despite his protests, she told her husband—who was twenty-nine and already a journeyman electrician who made plenty of money—that she was starting back working at the old folks’ home, even though she had been fired and couldn’t go back if she wanted to. After that, five days a week she would drop off the baby at her mother’s and drive around the hills outside of their home in Vicksburg, Virginia.
Ultimately, this scheme caused her even more stress since she was always worried about getting caught. But it was worth it for the moments of complete freedom where she did nothing but guide the car along winding roads and listen to Z104, the popular radio station she had listened to just a year and a half before when she was in high school. Three weeks after she told her husband she had started working again and less than a week before she checked into the Twin Pines Motel, she had the attack that sent her to the hospital in an ambulance. She had been driving to her mom’s house to pick up her daughter when she suddenly couldn’t breathe, pulled over, got out, fell down, and convulsed on a bus stop bench where someone called 911. She had been sure it was her heart and that she was about to die. Then, after they convinced her she wouldn’t die, she only worried her husband would find out about the visit and know she wasn’t really working. So, when she was released, she took a cab to her car and drove west, only stopping at the bank to take out money.
Her plan was to get in touch with the guy she used to work with, the guy who called old dead people ploppers. Back when they worked together, when she was sixteen and in high school and he was thirty-two and divorced, they used to go into unoccupied rooms in the old folks’ home and screw whenever they had the chance. This was before she had met her husband, and though she was already looking forward to being married she never thought this guy would be the one. With him there had been none of the tenderness or devotion she expected from a man who loved her. Back then she just couldn’t believe a guy twice her age would pay any serious attention to her, so she thought herself lucky to be able to have sex in empty rooms or in the back of his car during their lunch break. A few times, she even slept over at his place after telling her mom she was staying at the motel where her friend worked.
Eventually they were caught at work by the janitor and the guy moved to California. But she didn’t have any regrets, even though she was fired and her mom threatened to send her away to a Catholic high school despite the fact they weren’t Catholic. She had considered this the most exciting time of her rather dull life, until now.
The guy had given her the phone number where he said he’d be staying in California, but that was almost three years ago. Nobody picked up when she had called from the motel the first night after she left her child and husband. If she could get in contact with him, now that she was of legal age, she thought maybe they could be together and she could recapture the feeling of wrongness and excess their sleeping together had once produced.
The Twin Pines Motel was outside of Leawood, Kansas, about halfway across the country and far away from Vicksburg. She supposed she’d stay here another day or two to figure out if she wanted to keep going west to look for this guy or to return home. Now that she had the master key, she thought this was as good a place as any to stop for a while, since it was free.
She stayed in the room two nights without leaving, the T V always on and the blackout curtains drawn. She called the number of the guy in California twenty-seven times but nobody ever picked up. Calling him turned out to be a comfort, almost a game. She’d call and place the receiver on the table by the window and turn down the T V really low and listen to the pulse of the ring coming from across the room. Sometimes she tricked herself into believing someone had picked up and she’d run over and push the receiver breathlessly to her ear. She didn’t know what she’d say if he picked up. Twice she dialed all but one number of her home phone.
After the cops kicked her out of the motel, she had gone to town and bought enough groceries to last her for a few days. There was no refrigerator in the room, so she bought Pop Tarts and Ritz Crackers and Coke and bread and peanut butter and cans of food like beans n’ franks. She also bought a can opener and a Penthouse magazine. At first it had been fun hunkering in. It felt like camping, or hiding out after committing a crime. But by the end of the second day, she was sick of eating junk and masturbating and calling the guy in California and watching talk shows and sitcom reruns. She kept the T V on constantly so she wouldn’t feel so alone. The T V was on even when she slept or masturbated or once when she stripped completely naked and cleared out enough space to perform every cheer she had learned during the half a season she was a B-squad cheerleader for the J V football team. Soon she started to feel sorry for herself since this was all she could think to do for amusement.
The second night, after it got dark outside, she called the California number one more time. When no one answered, she turned off the T V and left the room. She took her master key and started in the back and opened up all the rooms one by one, looking for the best one. They were basically all the same—one open room taken up mostly by a low, queen-sized bed with a thin, scratchy comforter, tile floors, mismatching side tables and dressers probably bought secondhand. But some of the faucets didn’t work right or the shower was moldy or the T V remote didn’t have batteries. Mostly they all smelled of cigarettes and dust and old sex. She was used to her room by now, so she kept it, but took anything she wanted out of the others. She took an additional mattress and a bunch of new pillows and less scratchy sheets and all the towels and sixteen extra bedspreads. She took the Bibles.
By midnight she had gone through all twenty-seven of the other rooms, then she went back to hers and surveyed the heap of linen. She had no idea why she had gone to the trouble but didn’t regret it.
For a long time, she sat on the edge of her bed. Soon she heard the crunch of tires on the parking lot gravel, a car door close.
FOR THE NEXT HOUR she did little but check to make sure the blackout curtains were pulled tight. She kept as quiet as possible. Every so often the sound of a closing door or the clattering of pipes filling with water pierced the silence.
She wouldn’t be able to sleep knowing there was someone else at the motel. She wanted to call her husband, since this was the type of thing he was good at giving advice about. But if she called, he’d only tell her to come home.
She let her mind run away with her. She considered writing her real name and home address down on a piece of paper and hiding it in a drawer in case this person broke in and killed her and stole her purse. Somehow the act would comfort her. She thought this all very seriously and then laughed out loud for being so reasonable about the perverse thought of her own death.
Just as she laughed, there was a knock on the door and she blurted out, “Who is it?” then covered her mouth with her hand.
“My name is Richard. No one else is here.”
“Yes,” she said.
“All right. Sorry to bother you, but I saw the light on. I just took a shower and there wasn’t any towels,” he said, and paused. When she didn’t respond he added, “And I was wondering if you had any.” Again she said nothing. He said, “Because I’d like to dry off.”
She glanced over at the huge pile of towels just outside the bathroom door. She wondered how she could get him one without opening the door, and ridiculously considered if there was some way of utilizing the air ducts.
“And my bed doesn’t have any blankets,” the man said hopefully.
“Richard,” she said, allowing desperation into her voice, “you’re not going to kill me are you?”
“Ma’am, I’m out here wet and wrapped in the fitted sheet from the bed. I just want a towel.”
“YOU KNOW I ALMOST DIED once?” Anne asked him later, in his room. She had told him to go back there and wait and then had gathered up several towels and an extra set of sheets and blankets, folded them up and brought them by. She was going to just knock and leave them outside the door, but she didn’t like the idea of linens getting dirty. He had taken the sheets, thanked her with an odd expression on his face, and began closing the door when she asked if she could come in for a bit. He hesitated and said she could. She didn’t like how he wanted to close the door. It felt like she had done something to make him feel bad. Plus she hadn’t talked to anyone since she’d gone to town two days before, when she got a Coke at a Denny’s and talked to an old couple at a nearby table. Now she was anxious for company. She wanted to convince him that she was staying at the motel legitimately, so she started talking about her life as though they were simply fellow travelers.
“What’s that?” he called from the bathroom where he was finishing drying off.
“I almost died!”
“Okay,” he said.
“I was seventeen and had kind of a heart attack. No real reason—no, there was, but I won’t go into it—I didn’t do anything to deserve it though. The doctors just told me that it happens sometimes with some people, like I was born with it. I take pills now. They said I died for about thirty seconds, but I’ve always thought of it as a long pause between heartbeats.”
“Can you hand me that?” he had come in from the bathroom while she was yelling to him, and now indicated his duffel bag that was on the ground between her legs. He was wrapped in a small, thin towel, and she saw how embarrassed he was to have her there, probably because of how his shoulders folded in on his concave chest. His chest hair only grew in tufts around his nipples and on the side of his abdominals like a row of brambly bushes on either side of the gently sloping path of his swollen little pot belly. Between his chest and his right shoulder, just above the armpit, was a small green tattoo of a cheetah stretched out in full sprint. She had never seen a tattoo in this spot on anyone before and was going to comment on its strangeness but figured she had no business making him more self-conscious than he already was.
She handed him the duffel and he walked quickly back to the bathroom. When he was out of sight, she continued speaking.
“Why I had Birdie. That’s my daughter.” She swallowed down fear or sadness when she said her daughter’s name. “I figured if I was going to die, I wanted to have a baby first, have a family, to know what that’s like. It never crossed my mind to see the world or screw a bunch of boys. Went right to finding a husband. Probably how I was raised.”
She waited for a response but all she heard was a quiet grunt from the other room, like he was having a hard time getting his leg into his pants or just slipped a bit on the wet floor.
When he came back in, she said, “I still think I’m going to die, every day I think it could happen.”
He looked alarmed and said, “I’m sorry?”
“It’s no big deal. Anyone could die every day.”
“No,” he looked as though he wasn’t sure if he should go on, then said, “I didn’t hear what you’ve been saying. I wasn’t paying attention.”
She didn’t feel like telling it all again and felt cheated at having just wasted her best story. It took energy to tell that story, and she was used to it getting a certain response. Even though he hadn’t been listening, with the absence of a reaction she doubted how good of a story it really was. Maybe, she thought, from now on this would be her new best story. The story of her staying at this motel, being in this odd man’s room. It seemed impossible she would ever tell this to anyone though, no matter what she did after she left.
He sat on the other side of the bed and fiddled with the T V remote, spinning it in the air and catching it. He was dressed in wrinkled corduroys and a dirty, buttoned-up denim shirt. Anne wondered if his dirty clothes were itchy now that he was clean.
“I saw an accident earlier today,” he said suddenly, still flipping the T V remote.
“Was it bad?”
“On the interstate. I saw it coming too. Saw the car a few hours earlier and knew it was going to crash. It wasn’t driving reckless or speeding too much. I just knew.” He scrunched his nose and said, “I see things like that.”
“How do you mean?”
“I can just see things that will occur. Not like E S P or whatever. I just see people or animals or clouds or whatever and know what’s going to happen to them. Like how sometimes you can see a lamp and just know the light bulb in it will be burnt out.”
Anne had no idea what he meant.
“I’m more attuned,” he said as a kind of conclusion.
“I think I know what you mean,” Anne said brightly to fill the ensuing silence. “Like now, I see my life going in one direction or another. I can either go west or east, you know? And I can see how each of them will play out in full. I see how my birthday five years from now will either be me making us all a cake or else being in a place where nobody even knows it’s my day, or how one day I’ll see my daughter graduate high school or else the next time I’ll see her is when she’ll track me down years from now when she needs a kidney or something.” Saying this out loud hit Anne like a fist, and she put a hand to her mouth. She didn’t even know those thoughts had existed within her.
Richard only shook his head hard. “That’s not it at all,” he said. “Those are just choices you make. Should-I-pull-over-at-this-stand-and-buy-this-Indian-jewelry stuff. What I mean is really knowing. Like couple weeks ago,” he glanced at her to make sure she was following him, “I saw this kid walking across the street and thought how he’ll be in prison. Next week I saw his mugshot in the paper. That was in Sarasota, Florida.”
“Maybe it was a different person? In the paper. Maybe he just looked like him.”
“It was him all right,” he said with a laugh, as though she was stupid.
“I’m more interested in what I’m going to do than if some kid’s in prison or not,” she said.
“I don’t doubt that,” he said, more animated than she’d seen him. “Me, I like to look how things’ll play out. Like I’ll be watching a baseball game and know just before a pitch if it’ll be a home run or not. Then to see it happen!”
She didn’t press him. She didn’t believe for one second that he had any insight, and she didn’t want to hear any other crazy ramblings. But she liked being near someone else, even if he was strange. And having seen him in that towel took away any lingering fear she may have had of him. Anything that pathetic couldn’t possibly harm anyone.
He turned on the T V. There was a news program on P B S. Anne wished anything else was on the screen—anything would be better. But she didn’t ask him to change the channel. It wasn’t her room. Instead, she asked him why he was at the motel, if he was traveling somewhere.
“Me?” he said, not taking his eyes away from the screen. “I own this motel.”
“But he died,” Anne said, then bit hard on her tongue with her eyeteeth.
“I’m his nephew,” he said, eyes still on the T V. “Guess I don’t own it yet. Have to sign some papers, fill some things out, show two forms of government-issued I D, that kind of thing. Took care of things when the old man was on vacation so I already had the keys. Been driving for two days ever since they called.”
She didn’t know what to say and instead paid attention to the T V where there was a roundtable discussion involving three old men and a young woman.
“Don’t you want to know who I am?” she asked after a minute.
“Figured you were taking care of things until my arrival,” he said.
She stayed quiet.
“Do you work here?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “I just needed a place to stay.”
“Well, there you go,” he said.
She didn’t say anything, and he turned to her. He said, “Aren’t you going to ask me for permission to stay?”
A feeling came over her, like she was walking along and stepped in a puddle of muddy, oil-slicked water. She had just been in an okay mood and now that mood was ruined. She got up from the bed and walked out.
ON HER BED, STARING at the ceiling where the light from the muted T V flickered, she couldn’t bring herself to move. The only thing she wanted to do was call California, but now she felt sure the guy would pick up, and that frightened her.
Outside she heard footsteps and then a tap on her door.
“Lady, you don’t have to go,” he said through the door. “Tell the truth I was getting excited on the drive up here, thinking I’d sell this place, take the money and move on up to Alaska. Now I’m not sure. I mean, it probably won’t sell for much, taxes and all. But hell. Found money.”
He paused for a long time.
“But now,” he almost shouted, “I’m thinking I like it out here. Quiet. I don’t have much going on. Can always fix it up, sell it later. If I did keep it you could stay. Hell, you can live here permanent. Can help me run it if you want. I can live over there and you live here. Pay you a wage.”
She turned over and put one of her twelve pillows over her head and held it tight. He kept speaking but it was muffled. When she took the pillow off it was quiet but she knew he was still out there.
“Richard?” she called.
“What do you see for me? What’s going to happen?”
“How do you mean?”
“You see things. You said before you know what people are going to do. Tell me.”
“I was kidding about all that,” he mumbled so quietly that she crept off the bed and crawled to the door so she wouldn’t miss anything. “I was trying to fool you. Just something to say. Sure, I see things but not really. I spend too much time alone.”
“Richard,” she said calmly through the door, “tell me Richard. I don’t care if it’s true, just tell me. Tell me what I’m going to do.”
When he didn’t speak, she went back to bed. To try to settle her mind, she imagined what was going on back at her house. Her mother there, sleeping in the baby’s room. Her husband in bed unable to sleep. Her daughter crying, or needing to be changed, or staring at her mobile, or asleep in her crib. The idea of all that exhausted and depressed her.
In the morning, she knew, she would see things differently one way or another. But now, on top of two mattresses, surrounded with pillows, like a shabby queen, she didn’t regret a single thing she had ever done. And no matter what happened next at least it would be her choice. Outside, Richard began to speak. She liked that this strange man was nearby. She liked that this was who she was right now, that this is who she’d become. She had no idea that this feeling was what she had been searching for until she found it.
From outside she heard a seemingly unending string of words come from Richard, all muffled and indecipherable. She thought how tomorrow would be different, but right here and now she was in the perfect place. She was tired but tried to keep from sleeping, because when she woke up things would happen. At this moment she was right where she was supposed to be. She wanted to be who she was right now forever.
ALEX PICKETT grew up in Wisconsin and now lives in London. He received his M F A from the University of Florida. His stories have appeared in Subtropics, Green Mountains Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and the Rupture, among other publications. He can be found at rapickett.com.