FIONA J. MACKINTOSH
GAIL IS knee-deep in a field of pungent, loamy shit. She’s trying to wipe the crust of it from her fingers when the flight attendant touches her shoulder to buckle up for landing.
On the cab ride from the Baltimore–Washington airport, there’s nothing but business parks both sides of the highway. The hotel is located just off an exit. A fountain bubbles in the deserted reception area as the young man checks Gail in, his fingers clattering over the keyboard.
She asks him, “How can I see the monuments? I don’t have a car.”
She hasn’t bothered to rent one. It’s just an overnight trip.
“Oh, you’re a long way from the monuments out here, ma’am. You’ll need to get a cab to the Shady Grove Metro, then it’s about a 40-minute subway ride downtown.”
“Okay, never mind. How late can I order room service?”
The young man bites his lip in fake sorrow.
“Unfortunately, we don’t offer room service. But there’s Groupers.”
He points with his pen to a squat building across the parking lot.
“They have an extensive menu and are open till eleven. And they do offer take-out should you wish to eat in the privacy of your room. That’ll be 376 on the third floor, ma’am. Have a nice stay.”
She checks her phone on the way up in the elevator. No messages. There’s one huge white bed like an ice rink with many pillows stacked perpendicular to the headboard. In the old days, she’d have flung them to the floor, rumpled the linens. But not now. She’s in awe of how perfectly everything is aligned. Order, something that’s been missing from her house for a long time. Tiny bottles on the shining bathroom counter, towels of every size carefully draped and folded. Room to breathe.
She’s been psyched for this trip – 24 hours a room all to herself, no monitors, no 3am rousings from the exhausted depths of sleep. She hangs up her suit and blouse and unpacks her toiletries in the bathroom. Checks her phone again. Looking at her notes for the meeting, her mind takes flight into the dead air of the room. Drifting to the window, she pulls aside the floor-length sheer and looks out. The sun has sunk behind the corporate buildings across the freeway, leaving a pink and orange froth in the sky. The double glazing mutes the cars speeding by on the interstate, going somewhere fast. It’s so quiet she can hear the click of the digital clock as the minute changes. She sits on the end of the bed, hands hanging limp between her knees. Not a soul in this city knows she’s alive.
Julio brings out change for the register, eight tubes of quarters, dimes, and nickels in each hand. Brad, the barman, is swapping out an empty Grey Goose bottle.
“Hey man. Quiet tonight.”
“Same as usual these days.”
Julio bangs the tubes against the edge of the bar one after another and slides the coins into the correct compartments.
“You okay for bills?”
Brad nods, one eye on the flat screen above the bar. The Wizards are playing the Heat. The sound’s on mute because Julio reckons not everyone wants to hear a screaming crowd while they’re dining. Three men in suits, ties loosened, sit at the bar looking up at the leaping bodies and closed captioning. An elderly couple comes in, and Bridget shows them to a booth with a view of the freeway in the fading dusk. Julio scans the room, checking for any unbussed tables or chairs that aren’t lined up straight, but all seems good.
His windowless office is a golden cave. It’s the yellow LED bulb that Joni insists is better for his eyes. There’s a pile of receipts next to the adding machine, and a heap of files on the floor. He flumps onto his desk chair, feet already throbbing. His phone pings – a text from his daughter.
— Dad, you there?
— What’s up, Mami?
— Mom says I can’t go over 2 Tammy’s till Ive done my homework. Its not fare.
— What I tell you about listening to your mother. If she says it, that’s it.
— Homework first. Always. You know the rules.
Children. If he’d known how his gut would cramp every time they argued or got sad. He’d no idea how hard it would be. Wanting them to have everything and then watching them take it for granted.
His phone rang. Joni.
“Did she text you?”
“And you told her—?”
“What’d you think?”
He hears her sigh.
“Sorry, honey. She’s a spitfire tonight.”
“You want me to talk to her?”
“Nah, nah. I can handle.”
“Out with his boys. And yeah, he did his homework – I made him tell me every assignment.”
“That’s me. How’s things there?”
“Like always these days, no?”
He leans back and looks at the pictures thumb-tacked to the wall – him and Joni outside their house on the day they bought it. A new-build townhouse in Gaithersburg. It felt so big back then, now not so much with the kids’ shoes all over the stairs and Joni’s Mary Kay stuff all over the dining room table. Pictures of Jorge and Marisa 10 years ago, squinting into the sunshine, Jorge’s Redskins cap on backwards, Marisa’s glasses sliding down her nose. A snap of his mom and dad at the kitchen table in the house in Baracoa, her dress stretched across her open knees, he in his undershirt. Looking at that picture, Julio smells car exhaust, coffee grounds, and the pungent, back-of-the-throat odor from the chocolate factories. And roasting pork. The thought of the crackling fat brings saliva to his mouth.
Insects are jitterbugging round the parking lot lights. Gail’s footsteps echo on the asphalt, the mulch in the tree boxes sharp in her nose. There’s hardly anyone in the restaurant, just an elderly couple eating in silence and a handful of men in suits, faces turned up to the basketball game. A very young hostess holding a plastic menu says “Follow me ma’am” and walks towards a booth by the window but sitting alone watching the last light fade from the sky is not something Gail cares to do.
“That’s okay. I’ll sit at the bar.”
Putting her phone on the counter, Gail hoists herself onto a stool. The barman has a shaved head and a hoop in one ear.
“Evening ma’am. What can I get you?”
Not another glass of dry white wine. Something new.
“I’ll take a J&B – on the rocks.”
He puts a cocktail napkin in front of her and comes back with a squat glass of amber liquid. There isn’t much to it. She sips, surprised at its smoothness. The men groan at a failed rim shot. The man closest to Gail looks in her direction and rolls his eyes.
“Not a fan?” she asks.
“Baseball’s more my thing.”
He has a full head of wiry hair and a belly that pooches over his belt. He takes his glasses off to wipe them on his tie, and there’s a deep red ridge on his nose.
“I know what you mean.”
He turns back to the screen where two very tall black men crash together onto a shiny floor. Henry’s often told her she should be able to talk sports. It’s good business, he says, especially in your field. Lots of guys. Would it kill you to skim the sports section once in a while? He used to say it, doesn’t any more.
“Got a favorite baseball team?”
The man looks at her, like he’s not sure who she’s talking to.
“Uh, the Brewers.”
“Get to many games?”
“No, but I live in Flor’da so I get to the spring training camps once in a while.”
He’s two stools away from her. She’s having to raise her voice but doesn’t want to have to slide off one stool and clamber up onto another. She asks him what he does for a living.
“Civilian employee with the Navy. Tech support.”
“What brings you here?”
“Conference at Bethesda Naval Hospital. You?”
She holds a mouthful of the whisky, then swallows. She has a mental picture of her organs lighting up one by one with a greenish neon glow.
“Got a meeting with AstraZeneca in the morning. I’m trying to raise some co-funding for a project with Northeastern University.”
“In Boston, right?”
She nods. She doesn’t want to talk about work. Signaling the barman for another, she nods to the IT man. His beer glass is still half full.
“Can I get you another?”
“Nooo, I’m set. Thanks though.”
Another tumbler arrives on her cocktail napkin. Her shoulders are starting to relax.
“So… tech support. One of those people everybody needs.”
He rolls his eyes.
“All at the same time usually.”
“Good to be wanted, I guess.”
“Good to have a job.”
She looks across the restaurant. The husband of the elderly couple tries to tug his credit card from his wallet. The wife watches him fumble, then snatches it from his hands. Gail turns and stares at the rows of colored bottles, bowing her head to dodge the toxic cloud. This drink’s going down faster.
“So, I’m Gail,” she says, when the tech support man again looks in her direction.
He reaches along the bar to shake her outstretched hand.
“Where you from, Lewis?”
“Milwaukee. Originally. Now I’m at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola.”
“The Land of Enchantment. No wait, that’s New Mexico, right?”
Her tongue feels loosened at the stalk.
“Uh, the Sunshine State.”
“Of course. What’s it like, all that sunshine?”
“I try to stay in the a/c. Irish blood, I burn easy.”
Gail doesn’t want to think of his pallor beneath his suit jacket and pants. Again, the cloud moves lower and she feels herself leaning over the counter to avoid it. Time’s flowing by, her precious time away, and she’s barely keeping one step ahead. The phone’s blank face stares upward from the bar. Its silence is worse than a dozen calls, no less a reminder of the great steel door that closed in her face just when she’d been planning to leave, building up to it, trying to find the right time to tell him. There’s bead of liquid on the screen. She wipes it off with her sleeve and drops the phone in her pocket.
She signals to the barman again who comes over with a menu.
“Can I get you something to eat, ma’am?”
The whisky is warm in her empty belly. Why spoil a good thing.
“Maybe a nice appetizer?”
The man’s a regular salesman. She fumbles in her purse for her glasses and scans the menu.
“Oh, just some nachos. And another J&B. And whatever the gentleman’s having.”
Words she’s never said before in her life. In one smooth movement, she slides onto the stool next to Lewis and crosses her legs.
Julio can’t keep his mind on the receipts. The restaurant’s losing money hand over fist. He’s expecting the corporate owners go from benign neglect to closure any day now. He can’t afford to get underwater with his mortgage. And Jorge may be getting in with a bad crowd. He’s already found a doobie in the boy’s jacket pocket, which he flushed down the john. Didn’t tell Joni but maybe he should have. Even Marisa’s getting mouthy, wanting the kind of clothes he saw the whores wearing in Varadero in the days when he was washing dishes in the resort hotels. Over his dead body. Sometimes he’s tempted to raise a hand to them when they’re like that. Taking things for granted, the iPhones, the cable TV, the Nikes. Like they have no idea how hard it comes to some. How hard it was for him. He’s told them, but they don’t listen.
Sometimes he goes a week without thinking about it. Other times, like now, it’s every day. And night. Shouting awake in a clammy sweat from dreams of ships as tall as cliffs bearing down on him, of clinging spread-eagled to a membrane of balsa wood circled by sharks. Weeping on the rocks of the causeway on the Keys, afraid to believe his luck. Later, safe at his uncle’s in Maryland, he’d had attacks of shivering like a fever dream that never stopped till the day he showed up for his first shift at Subways in Langley Park and there was Joni.
Gail sees a ring.
He nods. “You?”
“Oh god yes.”
Her limbs are starting to feel unanchored. There it is, that softening of the edges, that settling into herself.
“Don’t you think marriage is hard? I mean really. The expectations? So much responsibility and never, ever enough time to yourself. Don’t you think?”
A pause. He pushes his glasses up his nose with his index finger.
“I guess. Sometimes.”
“It’s so not the fairy tale. That’s a bunch of garbage sold by Hollywood.”
“Where everybody’s divorced.”
She laughs, louder than she meant to.
“You’re a funny man, Lewis.”
She picks up a nacho, trailing long strings of cheese, and puts it down again. She taps her finger on the side of her glass. Is this her fourth? The barman says nothing when she raises her hand but pours her another anyway. Lewis is half turned away looking up at the screen though it’s just a bunch of commercials.
“So have you ever had any bumps in the road, you and your wife? If you don’t mind me asking.”
Lewis turns his beer bottle round and round.
“What sort of stuff?”
He shifts on his stool.
“Uh well, you know. Money stuff. When our kid got appendicitis. That kind of thing.”
“Yeah, can be.”
She lifts the glass, breathes in the sharpness of the whisky, swallows. Currents of lights flicker to the ends of her fingers. Her neck and shoulders are molten as they haven’t been in months and months. Her head tugs her upwards, and it feels like her toes are dragging across the floor, yet somehow she’s still on this barstool next to a man called Lewis, so close she can see the tiny screws in the side of his glasses and the hairs in his ears.
“You never know how things’ll turn out, do you? All that happy happy joy joy on the wedding day, all the flowers and frills. You make all those promises, but you don’t have a clue what you’re signing on for. Not really. Nobody tells you.”
“Well, our priest was quite…”
“I mean, you love the person, right? You think you’d do anything for them but that’s all just roses round the door. Theory.”
The two other men at the bar are listening.
“Do you ever feel cheated, Lewis?”
“Yeah, you know – by this shitty life we’re all supposed to put up with.”
“Uh, it depends.”
“I guess my career could be better. But you do what you have to. It’s a paycheck.”
She knocks back the rest of the whisky. The restaurant has sunk into sepia. There seems to be a different couple, younger, in a booth by the window looking at menus. The girl at the hostess stand picks at her nails. There’s nothing here Gail wants to see.
She touches Lewis on the arm.
“D’you have a car?”
“Let’s go someplace!”
It’s what she’s wanted since she got here. Why hasn’t she thought of it before? She jumps down off the barstool, throwing up her arms like a gymnast sticking a landing. The guys further along the bar are staring.
“Come on, Lewis. Let’s go see the monuments all lit up. The White House, the Capitol. We could sit on Lincoln’s lap.”
The couple in the booth are looking at her. She must be speaking louder than she thought. Lewis is still on his stool.
“What’s the problem? I’ll drive if you like.”
He fiddles with his tie. She sees him exchange a look with the bartender.
“What? Where’s your sense of adventure?”
Brad’s shiny head appears around the office door.
“There’s a woman here fixing to get wasted. What do you want to do?”
Julio sighs and pushes himself upright on the arms of his chair. Smoothing his tie over his belly – how did it get so big – he follows Brad out to the bar.
The woman, a blonde in a suit, is rifling through her purse, which hangs in a gape from her shoulder. Julio thinks, “gun,” then sees the wallet in her hand. She slaps some money on the bar, a jumble of bills and coins that skid along the surface.
“Thaz for my friend here as well. The one with a stick up his ass.”
Julio moves to her side.
“Everything okay, ma’am?”
Startled, she turns towards him.
“Fine. Ever’thing’s fine, officer.”
Laughing at her own joke.
“Thiz little man…” she waves a hand towards a short man hunched on the next stool, face red, “… has no sense of adventure.”
“You’re not driving, ma’am?”
“Are you staying at the hotel? May I walk you to the lobby?”
She rears her head back.
“No, you cannot. I’m quite fine, thank you very much.”
“Of course, ma’am.”
Brad’s counting the money she’s put on the bar and holds up five fingers. Julio pulls out his own wallet and hands him a five spot to make up the difference. The woman shoots a last look of disgust at the shrinking man at the bar and turns to walk away, but suddenly turns back and swings her fist at an empty barstool, which crashes to the floor.
The men at the bar shout in unison.
The woman walks carefully towards the door. Julio hurries to open it for her. She doesn’t look at him. She hesitates on the sidewalk, hoisting her bag onto her shoulder, then walks very slowly across the empty floodlit parking lot. Julio watches till the sliding doors of the hotel open and close behind her.
He knows the motions of drowning, he has seen them before. The man on the barstool is talking to Brad and the other guys at the bar.
“Whew, she was a live one. Sounds like mucho trouble in paradise. Talking all kinds of nasty about her marriage. Feel bad for her but, man, she was one angry dame.”
Brad raises his eyebrows.
“Nice work, boss. But you didn’t have to pay. She looked like she wasn’t hurting for money.”
Julio looks around the restaurant, at the massive TV looming over the bar, the men hunched over their beers, the young couple eating their burgers in silence, the blue-black sky over the freeway. He waves the hostess over.
“Bridget, go get me a carafe of coffee please. And make it fresh, okay.”
The night air is warm as he crosses the parking lot, a handful of creamers and sugar packets in his pocket. It won’t be long before firefly time. Not that his kids care to chase them round the yard any more, hundreds of tiny moving lights, flaring and fading like sunspots on your eyeballs. In the lobby, the new guy with the buzz cut and designer glasses doesn’t recognize him at first.
“Oh right, you’re from Groupers.”
“Yeah, the manager.”
“What is it you want again?’
“There was a lady in the restaurant. She’s staying here. Seems a bit distressed. You know, drank a little too much. I just want to take her some coffee.”
The young man stares at the carafe like it has an unfortunate smell.
“We’re not supposed to give out the guests’ room numbers.”
“Sure. I hear you. But this is different. You know me.”
The young man looks strained, his reluctance obvious.
“Come on, man, I got no bad intentions. Just gonna leave the coffee, see she’s alright. You wanna come along? That’s fine by me.”
The young man shrugs.
“Oh all right. Whatever. She’s in Room 376. If she made it up there. She wasn’t walking too straight when she went by me.”
There’s no response to Julio’s first knock. It makes him nervous. Maybe this was a mistake. Certainly not something he’s ever done before. In case she’s looking through the spyhole, he holds the carafe up higher, awkwardly, to show why he’s there. After a minute, he knocks again – just once more and he’ll leave. He hears something behind the door, hard to say what, and then the door opens.
She’s wearing a bathrobe so he looks away, holding out the carafe.
“Very sorry to intrude, Ma’am. Just thought you might like some coffee.”
There’s a long silence and he shoots a look at her. She’s biting the edge of a thumbnail. Her face looks like an inside out glove, with all the seams showing.
“I’m sorry,” he says though he’s not sure why, “I thought it might help.”
She swings the door wider and steps back to let him in. He heads over to the TV stand to put down the carafe. There’s a small suitcase open on the luggage rack, a laptop and a file on the table below the window. Otherwise it’s like the maids have just left, everything tucked, tight.
He turns to go, then remembers, fumbling in his pocket, and holds out the jumble of creamers and sugar packets on his broad palm.
“In case you need them.”
Still she says nothing. Something crackles across the room, a swift drop in barometric pressure. As he looks, her blank face changes, her mouth slipping askew and he thinks, is this a stroke, should he call 911, then suddenly she’s on him, and the creamers fly out of his hand. She has him pressed to the wall, her mouth punched on his. He tries to grasp her arms, but she’s too close, twisting against his mouth like she’s trying to unscrew it. She’s against his junk, a furious pressure that crushes his nuts. Just as he’s able to get a grip on her arms, her mouth falls away and her face flickers and changes like Jorge’s used to when he’d wake from sleepwalking. She starts to shake, and, though Julio tries to hold her up, she slides down his body, her chin hitting his knee. An indrawn breath, then she’s crying, filling the room to the corners with jagged, painful noises. She’s holding tight to his knees. All Julio can do is bend and pat her shoulders with both hands, a slow rhythm, meant to calm.
When she loosens her grip, he pulls her up by the armpits and sits her down on the edge of the bed, but she’s not done, collapsing into him and clinging to his shirt as another spasm passes through her. He holds her to his chest, remembering how he’d held Marisa like this when their cat was killed by a car, looking straight down into the black well of her sorrow.
It’s hard to say how much time passes but quiet slowly refills the room. Gently Julio pushes the woman upright.
“Let me get you some Kleenex.”
In the bathroom, he catches sight of himself in the mirror, flushed, his hair mussed. He stops to straighten his tie and dab a silver trail of snot off his lapel with some wet toilet paper. She takes the tissues from him and blows her nose several times. Julio fetches a cup from the tray by the Mr. Coffee and pours from the carafe.
“Careful, it’s hot.”
He retrieves a creamer from the carpet, but she shakes her head. He watches as she drinks, her hands wrapped around the cup, then sees the large red numbers on the alarm clock by the bed.
“Ma’am?” He gestures to the door. “The restaurant. I gotta go close up. You gonna be okay?”
She looks up at him. Mascara has bled down her face, and her hair is all pushed up on one side.
“I’m so sorry. That was… I’m not…”
It’s the first time she’s spoken since he came in the room. Her voice is surprisingly steady. He puts up his hands.
“Not a problem, ma’am. Enjoy the coffee. And you have a good night.”
She nods, bending to drink again. Before he closes the door behind him, he feels like he has one more thing to say.
“Be well, okay?”
He doesn’t wait for a response. As he walks down the long empty hallway to the elevator, the wet patch she’s left on his shirt is cold against his skin.
Gail sits on the edge of the bed, the empty cup in her hand, listening to the muted hum of the freeway. Sugar packets and balls of crusting Kleenex litter the floor. She forces herself to her feet. It takes her a while to find her phone in the pocket of her suit jacket.
Her brother-in-law answers.
“There you are. We were wondering…”
“Yeah, sorry. I had an unexpected thing. Everything okay there?”
“Pretty good. He ate a bit of mashed potato and it’s stayed down so far. Want me to wake him?”
“No, it’s fine. You okay for the night? Got enough syringes?”
“Everything’s under control. I struggled with the catheter bag, but Henry talked me through it.”
It’s all there in the hotel room with her, the big metal bed, the smell of bleach and piss and plastic sheets and a sweetness to turn your stomach, the smell of a person rotting from the inside, a person she doesn’t even like much any more.
“Don’t worry. We’ll muddle through. But he’ll be glad to have you home.”
When she hangs up, the silence starts to rise in the room again, but she won’t let it. She reaches for the remote and the TV springs to life with a burst of canned laughter, and she pulls all the pillows off the bed and throws back the covers. At the window she draws open the blackout curtains and then the sheers and looks out. The moon, tipped a little sideways, is not quite full. Some nights it looks like nothing but a mass of cold igneous rock, as dead as an old tooth, but tonight she sees the deep-set shadowed eyes and the round questioning mouth. A movement below catches her eye, and there’s the kind Hispanic man who brought her coffee, a little portly, a little rumpled, standing by his car. In the floodlit ocean of the parking lot, he’s looking up, like her, at the almost perfect moon.