I saw the whole thing through the peephole in my motel room door. I’d noticed the two of them out by the pool. He was a dirty bird with his back to the late sun leaning over handlebars talking at her face. She held herself back, arms crossed and eyes squinting. It seems rare these days for a motel to have a pool, but this place has seen decades of splashing kids, broken glass and dirty birds.
I’ve lived here for going on three months now, and every morning I wake to Pizarro on the wall. At least I call him Pizarro with his sword and plumed helmet. It’s not a real painting, but an old reproduction, the kind with the texture and the 1970s all over in dark greens and yellows. The bed is huge, a California king with a surprisingly ornate carved oak headboard. The unyielding Sacramento Valley summer heat means sheets only. I sleep all night on my side facing the door stuck to the cliff edge of the mattress. By morning I’m wrapped tight with a fistful of cotton wedged between neck and chin. I’ve slept this way ever since I can remember. The way you sleep a girl once told me says a lot about your character.
He left his bike leaning against the low cinderblock wall that saved the pool from kids and dogs. It wasn’t much of a bike, or he wouldn’t have left it like that, not here. If he works, I’m not saying he does, he does something filthy, something ugly, something to do with cars. She used to be a beauty maybe, it’s hard to tell, but her color her movement her eyes they’ve all gone sideways eaten away from the inside. My guess is meth because even quit it never lets go, a wicked and forever dance partner.
It was a very catholic submission the way she went down on her knees, arms outstretched as if hugging the pavement was to be an honor. Halfway down he gripped her elbow spinning her face first and gasping hard into denim. The way they moved the whole thing seemed maybe practiced. Maybe for him but for her you could tell the fluidity of it was beginner’s luck. His low growl had a power over her. Mussed hair she relaxed soft into him except her lips pursed hard into a grimace or a smile I couldn’t tell.
There are two mirrors in my room; a horizontal one above the bed, which I guess is good for guys who like to watch themselves in action and a tall narrow one across from it just above the television. The double reflection means I’ll be watching some old history show and I’ll see tiny men heroically driving trucks across dunes or planes over jungles, but I’ll also see me seeing them driving running flying the other way like little wrong-way Corrigans headed back to base to fight among themselves. Distracting to say the least. Just yesterday I finally moved the tall mirror to that small triangle behind the front door where kids hide when their friends are counting down ready or not. I don’t like mirrors much. They flip even plain truths into lies.
Heels skitter along the red tile walkway. Boots threaten a row of potted cactus plants with scuffling steps. His throat rumbles the secret language of violence as they brush past my door cheek to chest steely fingers to wrists. Beneath Spanish arches past white stucco pillars then into an alcove and out of sight. The soft sharp sound of a key biting metal. He’s deft with a hostage and they’re through into a small space of brooms and blankets. They’re right next to me now just a wall between.
There’s no story with me, not really. No wife or children left behind no dream career shattered by a slip honest or otherwise. I simply quit one day. Having had enough of everything I quit on everything and here I am. No phone no job just a jacket some t-shirts and underthings and the two pairs of jeans I bought cheap across the border in Tijuana not minding the short fit. Oh and the Gideons in the dresser drawer I guess that’s mine that’s why they put it there for me to keep. I am not a religious man nor expect to be, but that book with its heft in my hand somehow calms me when I’m desperate for reverse.
Brown. It’s everywhere in this place. Not the warm and lustrous tones you find in rich loam and old guitars, mind you. The rooms and grounds are singed by the browns of decay and defilement. Brown stains on the walls on the mattresses. Rust brown sink and toilet. Ceilings stained from decades of fouled exhales. Chocolate spots in the ragged desk clerk’s eyes. There’s a rank brownness here that thickens by the day. I breathe it and excrete it. Here I am anonymous here I am quiet here I am a shade of the man who once bought new a German car that hasn’t moved in going on three months. I am Mr. Brown. I can see them, but they can’t see me.
I grew up in Colusa, California, practically on the banks of the Sacramento River. The neighbor kids and me would climb over the earthen levee to swim, fish and pan for specks of gold with old pie tins. The river let the rice and almonds grow and gave my mom a job managing a waterfront bar. One summer day we crested the levee just in time to see a migrant farm worker lose his balance and tip over into the water. Fully dressed in jeans boots overalls he waterlogged fast. Up and down the bank ran his friends yelling and waving, but not one got in to try to save him. Technically I didn’t watch him die since he was still moving his arms as he was swept around a bend and out of sight. Someone told me later that a lot of the Mexican workers never learn to swim. Something about not growing up near bodies of water but that still seems strange to me.
The kid next door was bigger and older. Jacob. Jake. We didn’t get on so well. He was jealous that my mom’s car had a bigger motor than his dad’s. Mom’s old straight six Falcon could blow doors off the little four-banger Datsun pickup. One night mom was working late making locals forget themselves when Jake and his cousin decided to place some real fear into me. With angry boy fists they banged on windows and doors. Back door front door big steel garage door so loud I can still hear it through years thick with envy of everyone even strangers. I knew it was them, my neighbor and that weird cousin of his all thick glasses and hair like tumbleweed. But even at eleven I’d seen enough horror movies where all the bad things happen to good people that my head filled with chainsaws bloody hockey masks floating beds. Maybe the neighbor boys were somewhere else playing role-playing games eating pizza. Maybe outside was some real darkness some bad darkness that would end me and leave my mom shrieking into the night. I had to find out. On tiptoes I could just see through the front door peephole. A bug light sprayed soft yellow on the concrete footpath and red pumice just beyond and quit to dark at the low mass of juniper and off-season agapanthus. No Jake. No cousin. And yet the pounding and devil voices were everywhere and louder. It sounded like someone was inside the house. My world was shaking. I was just a boy. I started to cry.
My brother my older brother, before he moved out to build malls and prisons for a living, he gave me a knife. He gave me a long sharp knife for opening fish caught in the river and small birds he’d pull from the sky with his twelve gauge. And so with all the pounding and the banging I did like the foolish ones do and opened the door. I’d forgotten about the cheap chain lock on the door, the kind that give an illusion of security but only slight resistance to an earnest shoulder. The door jerked the chain rattled I almost pissed myself in fear. Shallow breaths. More tears. Carefully more alert this time I slid the chain free from the lock plate. Like a foolish good person I stepped outside. It smelled like cat piss. The neighbor boy sprang from the blackness. I reached for him with my brother’s gift. He howled and sank to his knees his eyes round as my mouth. I looked at him then down at the thickening red stripe where I had traced hard from elbow to wrist. Jake never cried even though it must have hurt something awful. He told his parents something about running with scissors. By the time he moved away a few grades later the scar was just another part of his nature.
Palms pressed hard against drywall, I felt more than heard what he did to her. Tremors worked their way through plaster and wood. It was in my bones, their business. I don’t know if it’s right but I’ll say it now — I found myself grinding soft against the doorknob. Excitement sealed my throat. I admit it never crossed my mind to help to yell out to say anything to anyone. What does one say to stop a motion picture? Fire maybe. But even then the film unspools while the panic plays out and all you get is trampled.
Come mid-afternoon I usually hit the ice machine. If liking my beer in a glass with ice makes me a pussy then paint me pink and give me tits. I think beer tastes better that way especially in the summer. Back east people roll their eyes and say oh but yours is a dry heat to which I say bitch about your humidity but that same sticky wetness keeps your old wood plantation homes safe from thousand-acre flash fires. Everything and I mean everything is tinder at triple digits. One spark in bone-dry winds and it’s literally hell on earth. It’s when I’m getting ice when I’m walking all of ten feet empty glass in hand that I’ve noticed a few times the broom closet wide open. Inside, wall-to-wall plywood shelves stocked with blankets soaps supplies. Like I said, I could feel them through the walls. I could feel the details. I felt her subdued naked gripping the shelf, her nails white with the pinching as he took her from behind. While the dirty bird flapped his wing she inhaled fresh pine scent of cleaning products. I swear I caught sour notes of skin and sweat.
Jake’s little sister had mousy brown hair thin lips and was born worn out. She didn’t cry when all three of her kittens died during the same week. One was electrocuted chewing on a cord another crushed beneath the La-Z-Boy. The last just dropped dead nobody knew why. September wore her name like a cross. Born in May, her parents aged her decades with that name. Jacob is a good name, a solid man’s name straight out of the Bible. September is a month of heat and rain, a month that asks for trouble. I’d pushed memories of that girl down way down into a cave but seeing the same look of heavy weather on the broken woman exhumed every detail. Two decades apart but the same age really, the girl needing only to deepen her cracks a bit. Summer was probably a waitress now or something similar check to check and deeply fissured. I wonder if this woman I felt through the wall was a waitress. I don’t think a lawyer maybe a bank teller at best.
When the vibrations stopped I exploded. And I mean for real, the kind where the tingling starts slow all over like goose bumps then rushes inward to the center and out and out and out all over. The knife her breasts his dick the scar youth baseball and mousy brown hair all came together in a white flash fierce and all consuming. As a man you think you’ll never get that first one back that first all over slow creeping quiver before you shoot away forever your childhood in a moment that freezes you embarrassed or traumatic or victoriou depending. But there it was again and there I was in my jeans standing staring cross-eyed at wood grain up close feeling the cold drip of what my boxers failed to field. The years between compressed in the flash and she was, this waitress or whatever she was, she was the same as the first one right next door and through the plaster so close. During that summer when I grew up I’d sleep on my side pressed against the wall — against our wall — thinking of the warm wet month to come.
I still had my pants down one sock wiping when they came out. With a finger I crooked a blind. Through the sliver her sandals in hand smile cracked wide cracked big cracked open. Had she only played at broken wings? His rumble and dead eyes gave no clue as they walked back to his bike back to the pool where a small child I hadn’t noticed ran up and hugged her shaking legs tight. A nuclear family I had no idea a doctor a lawyer whatever they were remains a mystery to me.
There’s no magic in the way that I’m telling this the way that I’m relating my story the way that I’m getting things across. But it’s enough for me. I feel better about things having said them.
We were young well at least she was. She looked older but that was just a look the one she couldn’t help but flash in the flesh. I know her dad noticed. I saw him notice we would notice together. She was child smooth and small so small. It took an echo to really put a fine point on things for me, to make a priest of dumb lovers and a confession of my release. The stain I must have left and what it means I should examine but probably won’t. Why go all the way to the end of the road if there’s nowhere to turn around?
In my pocket are the keys to a German car tucked away in my garage. One day soon I’ll twist the ignition and send the sparks that light the fire that will move me. The reverse lights will barely blip before I drive away.