This first appeared in the inaugural issue of Concrete Desert Review. The full version appears in my collection, A Flame on the Ocean. Please enjoy this excerpt.
The mailman dropped a stack of envelopes and a rectangular box wrapped in brown paper on the counter. His forehead was beaded with sweat from the mid-summer heat. He gave Jessie a perfunctory nod, paced across the lobby, and shoved the door open in an explosion of tinkling bells that hung from the door. Jessie picked up the box, letting the envelopes fall to the desk. It felt too heavy for its size, a solid, weighty shape whose contents didn’t move when Jessie shook it. Her name, care of Belvedere’s Motel, was written in her younger sister Crystal’s childish blend of script and print. There was no return address. The stamps were crooked, mismatched and overlapping, in contrast to the sharp corners and the paper’s straight edges. Jessie imagined her sister cutting a grocery bag along the folds, laying the box in the center, creasing the corners like origami. Once the box was wrapped, she must have been overtaken with a great urgency to be rid of it.
Jessie shook the box again and replaced it on the raised counter, next to the silver bell. The air in the lobby was warm and still, and often retained the odor of cigarettes long after the smoker had breezed back into the parking lot. The counter’s dull tan surface was webbed so evenly with timeworn cracks that they appeared deliberate. The shabby, maroon carpet was worn to black in places, and threadbare with patches of plastic backing peeking through in others. Business at Belvedere’s, formerly one of Maryland’s finest mid-century motor courts, had declined when the interstate highway was built. Belvedere’s and a scant few others nearby remained open during the following slow decades, catering to down-at-the-heels travelers and salesmen with trunks full of door-to-door wares.
The bells on the lobby door tinkled again. A man entered and strode toward the counter. Jessie straightened, smiled out of habit, watched him slap a fat, ruddy palm onto the silver bell before she could greet him. His pale blue polo shirt was unbuttoned at the neck, with broad, translucent circles of sweat beneath his arms. A faded red Nike swoosh was embroidered on the pocket. “I’m ringing the bell, and here you are. How’s that for service?” The man’s grin was wide and affable, ready to befriend her and begin a sales pitch. His forehead shone with beads of sweat, and his cheeks were flushed. “Hot enough out there for ya?”
Jessie’s expression was polite, but she didn’t engage him. She broke eye contact and moved her sister’s box to the desk below the counter. She didn’t need to know this man to know his kind. “Welcome to Belvedere’s, sir. How many nights will you be staying?” Any more conversation than necessary with Belvedere’s clientele and they’d inevitably ask if she knew a place where a man could get a good hamburger in this town, what time she got off, or if she’d accepted Jesus Christ as her personal savior. She’d completed this check-in hundreds of times. She knew this man would ask for one room for one night and she’d assign him a room near the vending machine. She’d dangle his key by the oval plastic keychain so he could take it without touching her hand. She knew he’d glance at the room number embossed in chipped gold ink before exiting. She knew he’d leave a rumpled bed and towels on the floor. The maids would find an empty bottle or two, a sticky plastic cup on the nightstand, and an ice bucket filled with lukewarm water when the ice machine was working. Occasionally, the maids would discover a trash can filled with vomit or a trail of dark droplets on the carpet leading to a bloody hand towel in the sink.
The man who rang her bell took the key for one room, one night. He glanced at the room number on the keychain, 12, and departing to the clamor of bells. As the door closed, he called, “Thank you kindly,” over his shoulder. Jessie was alone with the box.