by Ken Poyner
She looks for motels that have an outside reception area. Not many of those remaining any more. She walks up through a cracking parking lot and there is a man inside sitting by a broad public connection window. Along the exterior of the window is a ledge where she can set her purse or open her check book, or lean to look in on the man who is sitting there not twelve inches away from a small black and white TV, sound turned down, and the grandsons of reruns so old they look tattered even in the TV’s light, running round and round; and he is not watching, but it is a distraction and he turns to see who is at the window.
She finds these most often at the far end of small towns, where the center of the dot on the map is a group of three drug stores, a hardware place, two restaurants, eleven private residences and a dog groomer’s. Why a dog groomer’s? Trees at this secondary ring of small town community begin again to look less abandoned and more conspiratorial, and the light is more distinct and has its limits. The motel is a structure itself, not simply itself among structures.
She stands off to the side of the window, where the sight will be less filling, folded in her hooded sweat shirt, with her arms held close. The man knows something is not right, but for two thirds of the patrons wandering by any night something is not right. If everything were right, they would be at the chain motel half a mile up, or at the cluster of road hotels twelve miles back. Patrons come here when they need the room for an hour or need the room for a week; when the room is going to be part of a person’s life—a raw or cold space between two spots of acceleration or braking: not just a place to spend an evening and move on reset into the mathematically sound reality that came with the visit and that will leave with the process.
Someone, anyone, can still pay in cash at these places.
The room key is brass and hangs from a plastic tab which has the room number and full address of the hotel and she wonders how many keys have been lost or taken and the lock not changed because why would a place like this spend the money to change an old key lock. There is probably a chain lock on the inside, fastened only to the flashing about the door frame. Solid enough to provide a thin and suspicious sense of comfort; insubstantial enough that the owner can kick in the door and add the cost of replacing the wood, as well as adding six nails and maybe put in a little sugar for the hammer. Don’t think a place like this does not make money off of everything.
She slips into the room through the smallest crack of the door she can make, locking the handle behind her and closing the chain when she spots it. Not only is it set in the molding around the frame, it is six inches from the large window that dominates the front of the room.
She pulls the curtains closed using the track chain there by the lock. When they do not meet quite correctly at the bottom, she drifts silently over and pulls them together. They will not stay. She has not yet turned on the light with the domineering fixture that is the center of the ceiling above the bed, but can see a small desk lamp across the room, at a box-like desk with no chair. There is an adjustable neck on the lamp, and that is good. She points the face of the lamp down so it will make but a spot of light and turns it on. With the new light she can fish into the dark of her handbag and find a safety pin to clip the corners of the curtain together.
The room has been a workplace. The bed has a slight dip in the middle, and the coverlet folded back has a tear near the foot. The desk has the stain of underage drinking and the small chest of drawers has one drawer sprung, though pushed in. Each drawer is supposed to have two flapping metal pull handles, but one drawer has only one. There is a mirror that faithfully reflects the bed. The bathroom is a door just beyond the desk, and she imagines what might be in there but really does not want to know, having years ago lost any curiosity for domestic architectures. Plumbing itself was never an excitement of hers.
She pulls the sweatshirt off over her head and places it on the dresser. It slides where the surface has been too polished, wax trying to make up for substance, trying to even out the mixture of stains and wear making the wood composite sufficiently confused so as to highlight no particular imperfection. She sits at the edge of the bed and it sinks, the suspension shot, one leg almost imperceptibly skewing. In a far corner subroutine she suspects that the frame will last only four more teenage love specials and later perhaps a fat man, his fat wife, and their fat child all trying to make do with one room and one bed: stretching the budget; dreaming, as the frame begins to unclasp itself, of the change they got back from the man at the window.
She slips off her top and slices it onto the bed beside her, and rigidly sitting there spuriously naked from the waist up pays no attention to herself in the mirror. With her right hand she fumbles for the panel at the base of her neck and flips it up, pulling out the access cord. With her left hand, she draws from her purse the adapter, and bringing both hands in front of her inserts one into the other, leaning then over to plug the now configured loose end into the wall receptacle waiting with its slightly askew faceplate.
The taste of the electricity is like the grit of bugs on a windshield. It has been too many years since she has drawn anything better. But this establishment will not have room consumption meters, and the maid in the morning will see the closed curtain and be glad to move on to the next room; and the blue fire can growl in her belly, doing the best it can with her old, outdated battery and its worn, nearly spent cells. She would give anything to be able to charge for an hour and then have the hum of filtered power rattling around within her for days and days—instead of the reverse: powering for days and days to simply have dishwater current clinging listlessly to her nicked and fraying battery, every movement a surge and a whispering of whether there is enough yet left for more.
She has paid for the week, but someone always gets curious. No one would have gotten a good look at her when she came in, and one clerk will pass on to the other that no one has seen her leave the room, and the maid after three days will be thinking maybe there will be more of a mess in the room if I leave it one more day than if I use my key to get in. Who knows? Maybe she has overdosed or let in the wrong man or busted her head in the shower or simply picked this place to end her sadly serpentine story and she’s lying there in bed slowly making a mess of the whole place, to leave a stench that will take half the bleach from the corner of the double-door supply cabinet and a week of home remedies to clear out.
Three days she thinks. And then one of the clerks will rap on the door a few times; then open it with a pass key and see through the slit left when the door stops at the length of the security chain the reflection of the woman in the mirror, sitting there plugged into the wall. He will suck in a breath, at first not recognizing and focusing on the pleasant enough torso glossing the mirror, but then start screaming “Damn! Damn! You come out of there now! You Unit! You come on out here. You can’t be here! Damn, I hope you did not sign in during my shift. Come on now! I’m calling the cops!”
While he storms off to the office to get the phone—he probably will have a cell phone in his pocket but would not use up his allotment of minutes when the motel’s phone is just fifty yards away—she will unplug, put her adapter back into her purse, retract the cord and close her access plate, put on her shirt and sweatshirt—her busted battery still growling and hovering near exhaustion, though nearly as full as it is ever going to get—re-close the door from the inside, remove the chain, and then step out from as narrow an opening as she can make, edging down the front of the collection of motel rooms, around the corner where the gutter flaps still half held in place by a man’s discarded belt, and off across the trash filled pavement meadow behind the building: and finally onto a back road.
Even with a battery that barely holds a charge, she can out-distance any law enforcement that bothers to show up at the motel. In a few minutes, she will be across town, thumbing along the county highway, hoping for a trucker to mistake her for a comfort model, pick her up, and let her plug into the truck cab’s auxiliary power module. For as long as she can she will let him imagine what he will, let him taste the sharpening edges of his good fortune; but too soon he will figure out—from one conversational slip or another, from some blundering dry run at foreplay—that she is just an industrial model, a unit from a bigger machine, and out she will go: “Damn Unit! Friggin’ unbelievable!” hanging in her auditory processor. Hopefully, she will have salvaged her adapter and topped off enough power to make it a few more miles to the next hotel or the next flop house or the next trucker or the next half drunk adventurer; or even to some dreary oasis scrap unit shelter and its meter of just enough free electricity to be in and out and thinking again of when she stood on the line, reconfiguring, reconfiguring, reconfiguring face plate after face plate after face plate, before obsolescence set in, before happiness was twisted into something more than hours of complementary motion, with a maintenance routine now and again, and fresh parts when the economics came into proper alignment.
She will pull her collar around so that it covers the access plate hardly visible at the base of her neck, resettle her sweatshirt, and, committed, draw up the clinically soft, flannel hood.
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Ken’s latest collection of short, wiry fiction, Constant Animals, can be obtained from Barking Moose Press or Amazon. He often serves as strange, bewildering eye-candy at his wife’s power lifting affairs, where she is one of the most celebrated female power lifters of all time. His poetry of late has been sunning in Analog, Asimov’s, Poet Lore, The Kentucky Review; and his fiction has yowled in Spank the Carp, Red Truck, Café Irreal, Bellows American Review.