/ Language: English / Genre:prose

A Clean Comfortable Room

Pam Ward


Pam Ward

A Clean Comfortable Room

Sally had been driving long and hard for eleven hours already. When she saw the blue glow of the deadbeat motel she decided to pull in. She'd seen the Blue Star Motor Inn's giant sign from the highway, clean comfortable rooms for $16.99. Sally turned off the exit and drove to the squat stucco building. It had about ten units connected under one slim roof. Nothing but road dirt and concrete. A loud Coke machine sat out front.

She got out and walked quickly to the office. As soon as she stepped in she was hit with the harsh scent of canned meat cooking. The office looked more like a living room. There were two TV sets, a small black-and-white and one color stacked together. There was a small stove and a giant, brown refrigerator with a big dent in it. There was an ironing board and a rotary phone hooked to the wall. A hefty man in loose-fitting overalls sat in a La-Z-Boy covered with duct tape. He looked about sixty-five. His bald head gleamed from the neon. His numb eyes were glued to the set. The man broke into a wide smile as Sally walked in.

"I'm comin'," he said, walking laboriously to the front desk. He had one of those beer guts that hung like a sack of rice. His breath was heavy. When he got close, Sally noticed a gray possum wrapped around his neck. Its wet eyes were watching her.

"What can I get you?" He grinned, revealing a gummy row of gapped teeth.

"How much for a room?" Sally had left in the middle of the night and only had twenty-eight dollars in cash on her. She needed a room before she could hit the ATM in the morning.

"We got some go for thirty-five and some that go for seventeen. Depends. You by yourself?"

"For now."

The man chuckled to himself when she said that. His double chin jiggled. "Well, I guess I can let you take the cheaper one." He sighed deeply. He seemed disappointed he wasn't getting a bigger sale.

"Can I see it first?" she asked.

"Sure, sure. Wait a hot minute. Let me get the keys." The man ducked behind a torn curtain.

Sally leaned across the front desk while she waited. She tapped her long fingernails across the wood. I hope he doesn't take too long, she thought. She wanted to hurry up and get to her room so she could lie down. She opened her purse and took out her lipstick. She smeared the deep red on. Sally looked toward the blue glow of the television. Rosemary's Baby was on. Rosemary was struggling down the street with a heavy suitcase. She looked pale and worried.

Suddenly there was a horrible racking cough, coming from the dark corner of the room. Sally leaped. It sounded like a hyena. She squinted to see. There, next to the stove, was a wide-shouldered man in an undershirt. Sally hadn't noticed the man before. He blended into the dim corner of the room. He couldn't have been more than twenty. Was probably the older man's son. Sally watched him bring a bottle of whiskey to his lips and drink a messy swig. He licked around his mouth and watched her. He was staring at Sally's large breasts. His gaze never rose above her neck.

Sally was wearing a jean jacket over a thin black slip. She'd just shoved the flap inside her pants. Her bare feet were in pink thongs. To avoid the man's gaze, Sally walked outside toward the Coke machine. She wasn't going to stay in there with some wild-looking fool drooling at her.

She slipped in three quarters and the red can came rumbling out.

"Oh-there you are, darlin'," the older man said, walking outside. "I'm fixin' to get that room ready."

Sally leaned against the hood of her car. It was a warm Arizona night. You could see every star from here. Sally heard a rattling sound behind her. She jumped. It was just a corn chip bag stuck in some weeds. Sally was dead tired and her nerves were shot. She hoped he wouldn't take too long.

The man was back in less than ten minutes. He was carrying an old bucket.

"Well, its all spic-and-span. Got it real nice for you."

Sally hoisted her large purse over her shoulder. She followed the man to the room.

"Here we are, little lady." The man stood firmly in the doorway. Sally had to brush past him to get in. He smelled like hard liquor and farm animals. As soon as she stepped in the room the fumes hit her. It had that rank smoke smell. A scent so thick it was embedded in all the walls, rugs, and drapes. Smelled like it would never go away. Like somebody smoked in there year after year and never once opened a window. The wallpaper was peeling off, the bedspread was a hideous floral orange and the corners had cigarette burns. "I'll take it," Sally said.

The man had her fill out a tiny white slip asking her name and license plate number. Sally fumbled around with her purse and finally counted out seventeen dollars. She handed it to him.

"Now, my name is Edmond. Let me know if there's anything you need, sugar." He leaned over to hand her the room key and his huge body trapped her against the door jamb. Sally fell back and dropped her purse. The man bent down slowly and handed it back to her. "Watch yourself now. Looks like you need some shut-eye."

Edmond walked outside to the lot. He looked hard at Sally's car. It had about five layers of dirt on it. "I can wash that car there for you, if you'd like. Have it looking real nice. Real sweet. I know how to suds a car down. It's all in the motion you know. Got to go in a circular rhythm, keep your hands rubbing round and round and round. Don't have to press too hard to get a shine." His bald head looked hideous in the lamplight.

"Sleep tight," he said walking off. Sally watched his lumbering stride go back through the office door. He looked back at her before going in.

Sally shut the door. Banjo-playin motherfuckers, she said to herself. She slid the extra lock across the frame. She took off her jacket and laid it on the bed. Sally was beat down. She'd been driving for half a day already. She pulled the blanket all the way back and examined the sheets. They seemed clean. She took off her shoes and pants, then peeked through the drapes.

The road was real quiet now. It was 11:45 p.m. There was only one other car in the lot. She walked to the small bathroom. Some of the tiles were missing. A shower curtain hung limp on a metal rod. The toilet paper roll was half gone. Sally took a hot shower and wrapped herself in the thin, frayed towel. She sat on the edge of the bed. She wished she had one cigarette. Something to take the edge off. She clicked on the TV. Rosemary's Baby was still on. She watched the set while sipping the rest of her Coke. She looked around the room. There was a small refrigerator in the corner. She pulled it open. There were four beers strung together on a pale vein of plastic. The last person in there must have left it and the owner hadn't noticed it.

Sally didn't drink. She didn't even want to be tempted. Not now. Not after everything that had happened. Sally hadn't tasted liquor for three years straight. Not since that rainy night long ago. She dialed the front desk.

"Hello, ma'am. Room all right?"

"Yes, it's fine, but I found a six-pack in the fridge. I really don't want it."

"That's all right, ma'am. I'll send Leon down to pick it up."

Sally put the receiver down and put her pants back on. Leon must be the fool who didn 't have the decency to look me in the face, she thought.

She was buttoning the front of her jacket when she heard a soft knock on the door.

Sally peeked out the small hole drilled over the doorknob.

It was Edmond again. "I'll just take that beer off your hands myself. Leon 's busy right now." Busy? Sally thought. That man wasn't doing nothing but jackin' off to Rosemary's Baby. Edmond crossed the room, looking around it quickly. He walked over to the refrigerator and jerked the handle. He snatched the cans away as if Sally might change her mind. They clanked against his wad of keys. He stood next to her for a moment. She could smell the sour seeping out from his pores. She had emptied a few things from her purse, and a pair of black four-inch pumps was standing erect next to the TV set. He stared at them, too. Sally put one hand on her hips.

"Well, I guess you have everything," she said, using that fake sweet tone she reserved for work. She sure didn't miss Sizzler. Only thing she got from that job was a handful of bad steak knives.

"Yes, ma'am, I reckon I do. I'll just take this on back to the front. Let me know if you need anything else, hear. You be safe now, pretty little thing like you got to watch herself. Lord knows what's out on that road."

Sally started closing the door slowly. He could see her red lips and giant cleavage through the crack. The man took two steps but didn't leave. He reeked of cheap booze. Sally saw a dirty ring around his neck where the possum had been. She inched the door further in and accidentally touched his hand. It was hairy and rough. He looked down at her. His forehead was sweaty and large. Slowly, the corner of his lips curled up into a crooked smile. "I'll take this on, now," he said stepping out. "Call again." Once his feet cleared the door, Sally closed it shut and locked it tight. Country fools, she thought to herself.

She waited a moment before taking her jacket off. She went into the bathroom and washed out her slip and hung it on the shower rod. If she left the window open it ought to be dry by morning. Sally lay on the bed naked. Damn, she wanted a cigarette. She searched the room. Nothing. She thought about the last smoke she'd had with William. It was right after they'd made love. Damn, that man was good. He sure knew how to serve it up. She remembered how he cupped her breasts and sucked both nipples at the same time. How he begged her to climb on top of him, plunging himself deeper and deeper. How he tugged her hair just enough, just until her body was one huge arch. Until she felt like pure steel. Like one hot metal rod. Like she might just snap. Sally loved the way he screamed her name when she violently came. Yeah, she'd sure miss her some William.

Sally began playing with her breasts. She slid her hand down to her things. Damn, it was hot. Buck-ass naked and she was still sweating. Sally thought if she got off she could get to sleep. All that road coffee had her fried. She tried and tried but only ended up in a frustrated knot under the sheet. Her long hair was glued to the back of her neck.

She yanked the sheet back and thought about Leon sitting in that office in the dark. There was something peculiar about him. Something backwoods mixed with wild. Too much inbreeding, I bet. But there was something else, too. Something simmering like a pot of hot greens on the stove. Sally thought about the cigarette pack rolled up in his sleeve. His thick muscular arms and that tight six-pack stomach. The way his eyes ate her breasts. The way he leaned in his chair with his legs cocked out wide. The worn look to his jeans. The hard tips of his boots. The boy looked pure country. A bona fide hick. All wild-eyed and wooly-haired, too.

But it wasn't like she was in the backwoods. Flagstaff was just five miles away. Sally remembered what the gas station attendant had told her. "Be careful on them roads honey," she'd said. "Some of these small towns are more common than the Deep South. Watch out."

Sally took a bag of pretzels from her purse. She was hungry. Besides the Coke, it was the only thing she'd had in hours. She opened her wallet. She only had eleven dollars left. Her tank was already close to the red line. She had to get some cash fast.

* * *

Edmond walked back inside the office door and opened the cash register. "Sure is a pretty gal up in thirteen." He counted the money and put it back inside. Leon didn't even look up. His eyes were fastened to the set. He watched Rosemary's naked body being shoved against the long table. She was struggling frantically. The men were holding her legs down.

Edmond slumped his large body back in the La-Z-Boy. It was stuffed with old copies of the Phoenix Gazette. The newspapers filled the deep hole in the seat. "Yes sirree. A real live citified gal. Should have seen them patent leather hoofers she had up in there. Um, um, um." Edmond wrapped the possum around his neck, but it squirmed so much he let it loose on the ground. It ran to a dark corner of the room. He pulled a handkerchief out and patted his sweaty brow.

"I don't know what a lady like that is doing out here in the middle of the night. Did you see her clothes? Look like she just shoved her nightie in her jeans and took off. Must be another one of them women had a fight with their boyfriends. You see she wasn't carryin' nothing but the clothes on her back. Man oh man. If it wasn't for boyfriend fights and city folks cheatin', we'd be out of business."

Leon didn't say anything.

* * *

Sally laid across the bed. Rosemary's Baby was still on. She watched as Rosemary's slender body moved crazily against the hard table. The men pounded her down, took turns thrashing away, while naked old ladies chanted and held both her legs. Sally clicked the TV off. "Demonic shit," she said out loud to herself. She slid under the sheet and got a whiff of the dank smoke lodged in the bedspread. "Damn," she said. "I wish I had just one cigarette. Something to take the edge off." Sally dug around in her purse even though she knew there was nothing. She wished she hadn't dumped her ashtray out at the gas station. Probably was one butt she could have gotten a good toke from.

Sally scanned the tacky room. It reminded her of all the lonely nights in that hard apartment with William. All those dinners alone. All that waiting and waiting. Looking through windows for hours. All the cars going by, her ears straining hard. Waiting for his rumbling engine. Staying up half the night, smoking pack after pack, wondering when he'd pull in. She thought about all the crazy fights they had in that room. All the broken-up dishes, her clothes ripped in half, the big plates of food that got tossed at the wall. She played back the scene of their last blowout.

It was right after she let him move back in. She'd come home early and found him in the apartment with her coworker. They'd looked like two little kids, stuck in a crosswalk, right before a bus mowed them down.

"Shit," Sally said out loud. "I could sure use a cigarette now."

Suddenly there was a sharp rap at the door.

"Excuse me miss, but I just wanted to see if you needed anything before me and Leon closed the office down for the night. I'm fixin' to go get some fish up at Rusty's. Wanted to see if you wanted some. You was looking kinda hongry when you checked in."

Sally peeked from the hole. Edmond was right there. She could see the hard hairs poking from under his dingy shirt. She could hear Leon 's thick, angry cough.

"No thanks," she said through the door. "I need to get some rest. I'm really tired. Thanks for asking." She checked the knob to make sure it was locked. She could see them both step back.

"Well a little shut-eye never hurt nobody. But you sho' don't need no beauty rest." Edmond laughed real loud at that. Leon stepped forward. Sally noticed a pack of Marlboros bulging out from his sleeve.

"Cigarettes," she said under her breath. The nicotine pull yanked her beyond the point of caution. Sally cracked the door. "Mind if I have one to puff on?"

"You can puff on two." It was the first thing Leon said. He said it really slow. It sounded so sexy. His body was young. Strong and well built, but his face looked like twenty miles of bad road. He snapped the box open and shook the pack until one slid toward her. Sally pulled it out slowly as Leon brought a flame up to her face. His whole hand was a spider web of black tattoos. He had a fresh scar across his brow.

Sally didn't want these two men inside her room, so she stood in the doorjamb and eased the door closed behind her. "I don't like the smell of smoke while I'm trying to sleep," she said, stepping further out. She leaned against the door, facing her car. Her huge breasts gleamed under the moon.

"Where you from?" Edmond asked, taking out an old pipe and pushing some tobacco in it.

" Los Angeles," she said, blowing her smoke out rapidly.

"I knew it! You can always tell city folks. Spot y'all a mile away. Y'all stay in a hurry. Where you headed?"

"The Grand Canyon," she lied. She figured they'd make her out to be a tourist passing through.

"Yeah, I reckon we get a lot of folks wantin' to see that. Been out here nineteen years and ain't laid eyes on it yet. Ain't nothin' but a big hole, I hear. Lots of red rock. Folks line up for it all day. Standing there in the hot sun. Taking pictures and whatnot. Yesterday they said a lady fell the whole two hundred feet to the bottom. Got knocked straight off the trail by one of them loose rocks. Said her scream ricocheted for miles."

Leon almost smiled at that.

"So where are you from?" she asked, bored. Her eyes were on Leon.

"Why we from right here," Edmond said. "Never been nowhere else. Never wanted to go." Edmond adjusted the straps on his overalls and looked over at Leon. "He don't talk much."

Sally tossed her butt toward her tires. Leon flipped the pack open again.

"You might want one for later," Edmond said slyly.

Sally pulled two cigarettes out. She put one in her front pocket. Both men stared at her heavy chest. She tried to close her jacket but she was so top-heavy, it flapped open again.

Leon jerked one of the beers from the six-pack. He handed it to her.

"No thanks, I don't drink," Sally said, waving the can away.

"Why not? Nothing wrong with a cool drink every now and then," Edmond told her.

Sally was trying to finish her cigarette. She wanted to get back inside. "I don't touch it now. Did though, had a little problem with it."

"Yeah," Edmond said. "If you keep messing with the stuff, nine times out often some kind a problem will come up."

Sally remembered her last episode. All the horrible crashing of glass. She watched Edmond drink huge swigs and follow it up with Wild Turkey shots.

"Never learned how to keep away from it myself," he said.

"You married?"

"Kinda."

Edmond laughed heartily at that and even Leon, who looked like he never smiled in his life, looked at least less mean.

"I guess I'm kinda married, too," Edmond said laughing, stealing a quick glance at Sally's wide ass when she bent down to pick up some matches lying in the street.

"You can have my lighter," he said. "I got a bunch of 'em at home." Sally glanced up at him. She could see he was torn up now. There was a hint of delirium to his eyes.

"Listen, it was nice meeting you both," she said, stepping back.

"Wait now… you want some of this?" Edmond took a small package of crumpled foil from his back pocket. "Best weed around. Y'all can't get this in the city." He handed the package to Leon, who carefully rolled three fat joints.

It was really getting late now. Sally didn't want to spend one more minute with these two. And she wasn't about to blaze up in a parking lot in the middle of the night with some hicks. But Leon took the large joint and lit the shit up, right there over the hood of her car.

"Well, I'm goin' on to Rusty's," Edmond said. "Whatchu want boy?"

Leon held up two fingers and said, "Kaafish."

"Catfish sandwich and fries?" Edmond looked at Leon a long time.

"Umm hum," Leon said.

"You be careful boy out here, boy. Don't want nothing like what happened last time, you hear?" Edmond walked toward a gray pickup. He hoisted his large body inside.

Sally got up from the curb, taking her last cigarette with her. She'd only planned to talk a few minutes to be nice. Her feet were getting cold now. She was ready to go back inside.

"Well, good night," Sally said to Leon, getting to her door quickly and slipping the lock shut. She watched him from the peephole. Leon was blowing the smoke out real slow.

Sally finally breathed out easily. She washed her face and hands and got into bed. She tossed and turned but couldn't sleep. She tiptoed to the door again. Leon was still out there. He was stretched across her car. One leg hung over her rims. His hand was rubbing his flat stomach. Oh hell, she thought to herself.

Sally cracked the door open. "You want to come in?"

Leon smiled and walked inside. He closed the door behind him. Sally sat back on the edge of the bed. Leon sat right beside her. He handed her the lit joint. She inhaled it deeply. It was some strong weed. Leon leaned over and picked up one of her black heels. He was rubbing his fingers over the shiny smooth leather. "You want me to put these back on?" she said sweetly, touching his wide arm.

"Um hum," Leon said. Must be the quiet type, she thought to herself. Sally got up and went into the bathroom. Her black slip was almost dry. She pulled it over her head and wiggled out from her jeans. She slid the pumps back on. When she walked out, Leon was standing just outside the door, waiting for her. His shirt was on the floor. His slick chest was nothing but muscle. He picked her up and pressed her against the wall. She wrapped her legs around his slender waist, and he kissed her crazily, carrying her to the bed. He gently laid her down, covering her neck and breasts with his mouth. He was so tender and sweet. Sally ran her hands over his huge back and through his thick black hair. She could feel his belt buckle against her navel. He was grinding more rapidly now. With more fever. Sally playfully moved away. She wanted this to last.

Leon pulled her back toward him. He straddled her and started kissing her down her legs. When he got to her shoe, he pulled it off and tossed it across the room. He smiled big and lavishly sucked each toe. Sally moaned inside his bushy hair. She grabbed a handful and bit into his earlobes. Leon was bucking like a wild bull now. He pulled her slip over her neck. He grabbed her panties with his fist and snatched them from her leg. Leon got out of his jeans fast. "Slow down, cowboy, I'm not going anywhere," Sally grinned at his naked body. He had the ass of a twelve-year-old boy. She squeezed it while he put himself inside her. He rode her a long time. Real slow. Groaning and going strong. He was breathing faster and faster. Suddenly he yanked it out and burrowed his head between her thighs. Sally thought she would die. Her whole body was hot. Her thighs were pure steel. Leon put it in again, slapping her wide hips until she couldn't hold back anymore. Her whole body jerked into a maddening spasm. Leon was making a guttural sound. The next thing she knew she was asleep.

Sally was half awake when she found him thrashing away again. He had entered her from behind. He was breathing real heavy, almost wheezing against her. He had her doggy style and she could smell the hard whiskey from his mouth. She went to grab his head and found he was totally bald.

It was Edmond. He was fucking her like a mad dog. She flipped over and all his weight fell against her chest. His heavy gut made it difficult to breathe. He pinched her breasts until she screamed. Sally tried to squirm from under him. She tried to roll over but she was pinned down. His wide thighs held her legs apart. Edmond bit hard into her flesh. Sally yelled in pain.

"Shut up!" he screamed.

He wadded a washcloth and shoved it in her mouth. She dug her nails into his huge back.

Just then, the front door flew open. Leon came across the room and grabbed Edmond off of her. "Sta… Sta… Staaaaaaap!" he yelled. But Edmond socked Leon across the face, tearing open his new scab again. "You trying to tell me what to do? After I raised your lil' ass! Your own mama don't want ya." Red blood poured down Leon 's brow. He threw a punch at Edmond but missed. Edmond smiled wickedly at Leon and smacked him across the mouth. Leon looked like he might cry. "Sta… Sta… Staaaaap… it," Leon stuttered.

"That's right, start bawlin', you big baby! Ha, ha! What's that you say boy? Huh?" Edmond laughed in his face. "Look at you. Got the body of a man and the mouth of a two-year-old. Stammering and carryin' on. Can't say one sentence to save your natural life." Leon 's lips started quivering. He was starting to drool on one side.

Sally looked at Leon. She had figured him for the quiet type. She didn't know he was simple.

Leon ran up and rammed Edmond with his head. Edmond snatched the lamp from the table and bashed Leon 's skull with it. He fell to the floor and didn't move. Edmond looked crazier than ever. He came over to Sally and slammed her back against the bed. She squirmed with all her might and they both rolled to the shag carpet. The TV was right there in her face. The news flashed a story about a man found with his throat slashed in Los Angeles. An unidentified woman was shot with him.

"… killed in his own home. Police are looking for…"

Suddenly Edmond 's foot caught the TV cord and he ripped the set right from the stand. It crashed down and went black.

Edmond was laughing crazily and licking Sally's face. It was then she turned her head and she saw it, her black purse right next to her forehead. He wasn't holding her hands, so Sally stretched out her right arm and rummaged through the contents. She finally felt the cool steel. She took the gun out and blasted him in the face. She fired four times, until he slumped over.

Suddenly it was dead quiet. Sally held her breath. She could hear her heart beating. Her whole chest heaved up and down. Suddenly there was another sound, a scratching from behind the TV. She looked down and saw the gray possum dart underneath the bed. Sally grabbed her clothes and got out. She took Leon 's Marlboros and both men's wallets. Combined, they had seventy-eight bucks. She snatched the large key ring and went to the front office, opened the cash register, and found another hundred and a half. She took all the candy bars and bags of chips. She got back in her car and roared off. Sally clicked the radio on.

"Manhunt for possible female murderer. Sally Jones has been missing for two days now. Her husband was found murdered in their Compton home."

Sally punched the lighter in and headed up toward the interstate. Damn, she thought. In two days, I killed three people already. There has got to be a better place to live.

____________________

Pam Ward is a Los Angeles native and graphic designer. She likes to write about all the stuff your mother told you "hush" when you asked her: violence, sex, and road trips on the jacked-up streets of LA. She worked the hash food line in high school, did temp work for two sex maniacs in North Hollywood, and ran amok in corporate America until she was asked very nicely to leave. Her work has been published in Men We Cherish, Catch the Fire, and Calyx, A Journal of Literature for Women. She has received a California Arts Council Writing Fellowship and a New Letters Award for Poetry. Her self-published chapbook is entitled Jacked Up.

____________________

"A Clean Comfortable Room," by Pam Ward, © 2000 by Pam Ward, first appeared in Gynomite, edited by Liz Belile (New Mouth from the Dirty South LLC, 2000). Reprinted by permission of the author.

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