20 March 2006


The sun broke over ploughed cotton fields and dry irrigation ditches as the old man shambled out of the Crescent’s diner, a metal folding chair and Old Timer pocket knife in one hand, a green apple in the other. He set his chair in front of the soda machine, between the restaurant and the first of the motel’s eight air-conditioned cabins. A metal sign screwed into the brick behind him was stamped with red letters: “Vending & Ice.” He sat and smoothed the wrinkles from his faded chinos, gazing down the concrete breezeway. Red wasps bobbed around fat nests outside cabins four and six. The old man, whose name was Curtis, had meant to sweep these down and spray some Raid, but he hadn’t gotten around to it. He pulled a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiped his neck. The day was already hot. In the parking lot heat shimmered above the asphalt, the empty concrete bowl of the swimming pool, the highway beyond. Curtis knew he would have to clean and fill the pool in a week or two, police the pine needles, the toys the boy had left there through the winter—a red tricycle and stick horse, a couple of silver cap-pistols that had rusted in the rain. He’d most likely wait until after the spring pollen had run its course, when the chalky dust from the tractors in the fields had settled and the new crops were sewn. There was no hurry. At the Crescent, there never was. The old man hunched forward, elbows on his knees, and went to work on the apple with the knife.

He had most of it peeled when the pickup arrived for the McElroy kid in six. As usual, it swung into the Crescent’s gravel turnout trailing exhaust, three men in the cab, one in the rear. A blue Chevy with a cracked windshield, the truck drew parallel to the motel and idled roughly. The men inside were dark and weathered. They wore T-shirts and jeans and cradled hardhats and lunchboxes in their laps. They stared straight ahead. Directly, cabin six’s door opened and Billy McElroy emerged, a brown sack in hand. He was fit and tanned from weeks of outdoor work with the DOT. Tattoos crawled from his wrists beneath the sleeves of his white T-shirt. He wore black, steel-toed boots, had a shock of red hair. He lingered in the door until the girl, Ginger, appeared in the frame. She gave him his hardhat and he kissed her lovingly and caressed her swollen belly, whispered in her ear. Curtis watched them. The girl was barefoot and pregnant in a pink cotton shift. She had a small, delicate frame, dark hair, pale skin. The men in the truck were watching, too. The McElroy kid kissed her again and hopped into the back of the waiting pickup. He settled against the cab, beside the other man, who had a gray beard and a blue bandana around his head. They spoke to one another and laughed. Ginger closed the door. As the Chevy rattled past, out of the lot, Curtis lifted a hand. When the truck had pulled onto the highway and disappeared, he began quartering the apple.

Three slices were left when McElroy’s girl emerged from six in her bright green maternity swimsuit and flip-flops. She wore matching heart-shaped shades studded with rhinestones and carried an empty ice bucket under her left arm. A canvas beach bag was slung over her right shoulder, stuffed with a hotel towel, sun-block, tanning lotion, a Diet Coke in a plastic bottle, and a paperback copy of Richard Adams’ Watership Down. The old man popped a wedge of apple into his mouth and chewed, watching her stroll up the walk. She moved with one hand on her belly. Her apparent destination, the ice machine, hummed in the concrete recess behind where Curtis sat.

“Good morning, Mr. Curtis,” she said, flashing him a smile that would have set the world spinning had he been twenty, even ten years younger.

“Morning, Miss Ginger,” the old man said and offered her a slice of apple.

“Ooh,” she said and ate half. “Yummy.”

“Ain’t that something?”

She ate the rest. “You get that from the kitchen?”

“Sure did.”

She wiped some juice from the corner of her mouth, opened the ice machine, and filled her bucket. “Yow,” she said when the bucket, already sweating, touched her bare stomach. “Cold.” She dropped the lid on the machine and stuck a piece of ice in her mouth. “Got any more of those in there?” she said around the ice.

“Sure. Sign in the window says closed, but the door’s unlocked. Miss Angel’s still upstairs. You just go right in and help yourselves.”

At his use of the plural, she smiled, and a lovely blush the shade of ripening strawberries crept into her cheeks.

“New book this week?” He indicated her bag with the tip of his knife. A bit of green peel clung to the blade.

“Yes.” She pulled out the paperback. “Billy picked it up for me down in Clarksville last week.” She turned it over, studied it. “It’s about…bunnies.”

“Bunnies, well. Hear little ones like bunnies.”

She smiled again.

“Good day for sunning,” he said.

Ginger nodded and they passed more words about the sunshine, the heat. Her ice had already begun to melt when she excused herself and crossed the parking lot to the pool, the apples she was welcome to in the kitchen apparently forgotten. She let herself through the chain link gate and set her bucket and bag on the ground beside a tattered patio chair. The ice bucket made a wet ring on the concrete. Curtis watched as she pulled her towel from the bag—she had bought the bag last week at the Dollar General in Big Moon—and spread it on the collapsible lounge. She sat down, kicked off her flip flops, and nestled her Diet Coke snugly in the ice bucket. She began spreading tanning oil over her arms, legs, neck, and belly. When she was sufficiently slick, she lay back on the towel and cracked the novel.

For three days now she had come, every morning after her husband left for work, to lie by the empty pool inside the rusted chain link fence, where weeds grew through the cracked concrete and ants made hills in the grout of the tile. The old man could hear her voice as she read aloud, soft and measured and lovely, a Hattiesburg lilt, deep Mississippi. It filled him with something that was not quite regret. He ate the last slice of apple and listened.

She had finished only a few pages—the apple peel curled in one piece on the concrete between his shoes—when the bell over the office door, just down from the diner, jingled softly from inside.

An old woman, a good ten years on Curtis’s seventy, pushed through the glass door and onto the walk. She stood for a moment in the rosy light, let the door swing shut behind her. Her hair was long and silver. It hung straight and unwashed. She had a lined, stony face. There were thick purple veins on her arms and calves, whiskers on her chin. She wore a cotton bra and panties and nothing else.

Curtis folded his knife and slipped it in his pants pocket. He got to his feet.

Taking no notice of him, the old woman set out across the parking lot. She stepped on rocks and cracked pieces of asphalt, stepped around a jagged sliver of glass that had once been the neck of a Coke bottle. Despite the bra that held them, her breasts jounced with every bare footfall.

“Gram Smith?” Curtis called.

The old woman seemed not to hear. She was headed for the pool.

Ginger stopped reading and glanced over her shoulder. She saw the old woman fumbling with the metal latch at the gate and her mouth dropped open. She lowered her heart-shaped sunglasses and placed her book facedown on the concrete beside the ice bucket. Its sweat soaked the novel’s pages.

“Miss Smith?” Ginger managed.

Again, the old woman seemed not to hear. Her dark nipples showed through her thin cotton bra like pennies.

Ginger struggled up and into her flip-flops, started toward the gate. “Miss Smith.”

The old woman was bent now, inspecting the latch. “I can’t seem to…” she said.

“MOMMA!” someone yelled from the office.

Ginger looked up to see the Crescent’s owner, Angel O’Zan, striding across the parking lot in a maroon bathrobe, her long legs flashing in the folds. Her dark hair was wet and clung to her neck and freckled shoulders where the robe fell loose in back. She moved to the old woman’s side, took her by the elbow, and gently steered her away from the gate, back toward the motel. “Momma,” she whispered. “Momma, come on. Come with me.” The old woman muttered something in feeble protest—Ginger didn’t catch it—and let herself be led away. Angel gave Ginger a furtive glance, an apologetic smile, and suddenly Ginger felt like a little girl who’s seen too much of the adult world and been caught looking. She blushed for the second time that morning and returned the smile as best she could, then saw her book facedown in the ring of water and bent to pick it up.

As Angel and the old woman made their slow way across the parking lot, Angel being careful of every rock and shard, the office door opened and a little boy stepped out in green Yoda pajamas. With one hand he held the door for the women. In the other was a blue plastic helicopter. He seemed about to follow them inside when he saw Curtis standing nearby under the breezeway. Curtis lifted a hand, and the little boy let the door close and walked over in socked feet, his hair a straw-colored rat’s nest.

Curtis sat back down in his chair and gathered up the apple peel from between his feet and tucked it in his shirt pocket next to his reading glasses. “Morning, Mr. Andy,” he said.

Out by the pool, Ginger resumed reading.

“It’s broken,” Andy said, and held up the helicopter.

“Yeah? How’s that?” Curtis took the toy and turned it in his hands, looked at the boy.

“The blades won’t spin.”

The old man reached for his glasses, then his knife. He flicked the knife open and began fiddling with the screws holding the plastic blades in place.

Andy said, “She told me she was going swimming.”

Curtis glanced up. The boy was staring at the empty pool, Ginger beside it. “Did she now,” he said, and turned his attention back to the toy.

“I tried to tell her there wasn’t no water, but she wouldn’t listen. So I told her it was too early for swimming. We’d just had waffles. But Gram said, ‘Early’s best for swimmin’.’” The boy bit his thumbnail. “Momma was in the shower. I had to yell.”

“You did right,” Curtis said.

“She scares me sometimes.”

Curtis pressed the dull edge of his knife on his thigh, closing the blade. He slipped it into his pocket, removed his glasses, and held up the helicopter. With a flick of his finger he set the plastic rotors spinning.

Andy smiled, took the toy.

“Truth is,” Curtis said, tucking his glasses into their black case in his shirt pocket, “she sometimes scares me, too.” He winked. “Specially when she ain’t wearin’ no clothes.”

They laughed and, after turning the blades for himself, the boy spun on his heels and disappeared into the office. The bell jingled above him as the door swung shut. Curtis watched dust motes swirl in his wake.

In a little while, the old man got up and closed his folding chair. He called out to Ginger, “Watch out for them wasps till I get ’em sprayed, now.” She waved without looking around, and a second later he was shuffling toward the diner, chair tucked under his arm.

Out near the road, the motel’s sign—fashioned in the unlikely shape of a rocket—stood tall and incongruous to the flat, sun-washed landscape. Written in red, looping script along the fuselage was the motel’s name, and at the tip of the rocket was a crescent moon, tilted on its back, the yellow paint long since worn from its rivets. A gray hawk perched atop the moon, its head swiveling against the cloudless sky. Its eyes flashed in the morning sun and suddenly the bird spread its wings and dropped upon some small, unsuspecting creature in the grass. Its talons left the metal with a sharp snick.

By the pool, Ginger paused at the sound of shuffling wings, then, a second later, continued reading.


Blogger The Damned said...

Some comments about the prologue:

Maternity swimsuits usually are one-piece deals, so I don’t see how Ginger could spread “tanning oil over her arms, legs, neck, and belly”

This moment seems strange: She had finished only a few pages—the apple peel curled in one piece on the concrete between his shoes

If Gram Smith’s nipples are like pennies, they’re really, really small. I don’t want to give too much away about women’s bodies, but at her age they’d probably be the size of something bigger. Although I like the color image, I’m not sure if this simile is really working.

Okay, cut this because it’s interupting the detail of the sign: “fashioned in the unlikely shape of a rocket”

Overall this is very well done, Andy. I was with it the whole way, completely enthralled like i'd picked it up from the rack and got hooked. At first it reminded me of the movie where all the people are trapped at that roadside motel and one by one they end up dying (meanwhile it's all in a psycho's head)...you know the movie? But who gives a shit what it reminds me of, it's good and i'm very much into these character's lives.


3:04 PM  
Blogger Jean Louis said...

Thanks, Joy. Fixed these things.

Upward and onward.


10:37 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

On Joy's second comment:

I like the idea of using images instead of transition words ("Later") to convey the passage of time--it's a cinematic technique, I think, and to me it works.

The only part of this I didn't like was that I didn't have a clear picture of the office. I think we're told its down from the diner, but since the setting is so vividly described throughout, I thought we might need a more complete picture of it. Is this an L-shaped configuration of buildings?

9:28 AM  

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