Andy Plattner

Room

Bill Curry owned a dis­trib­u­tor­ship that sold indus­tri­al clean­ing prod­ucts and though he had once dreamed of doing far dif­fer­ent things with his life, he had to work hard to wind up with what he had. He knew that he had no right to com­plain. When the econ­o­my began to sink, he had to make more con­ces­sions. He had to let go of two sales­man and took over one of the routes him­self. Curry told his remain­ing sales staff that they had to cut back on expens­es, they need­ed to stay in motels now. He was not pay­ing for drinks at din­ner, not unless it was din­ner with a good cus­tomer. The biggest clients were food pro­cess­ing com­pa­nies and these com­pa­nies had been always been bul­let­proof when the econ­o­my slumped. But now even they had lost sig­nif­i­cant busi­ness. If seemed as if a cer­tain part of the con­sumer pop­u­la­tion had just van­ished.

Bill’s route spanned from Akron to Harrisburg. There was a town in West Virginia named Steelage with a motel named the Inn of Steelage he grew to like because the motel pro­pri­etor, Maggie DiMaggio, would sleep with him when­ev­er he stayed there. After the sec­ond time Bill and Maggie slept togeth­er she explained that her hus­band, Raymond, was on the road fre­quent­ly. She usu­al­ly did not have sex with the cus­tomers. She had cho­sen Bill, in part, because he showed up dressed in a jack­et and a pressed shirt. You arrive in the evening and you still look neat, she said. It looks like there is some­thing left in you. When you run a place like this, well, that mat­ters. Maggie explained that in the future, when Bill came through town, it should always be on a Sunday evening because that was after Raymond usu­al­ly left Steelage for south­ern Ohio.

She and Bill were lying in bed togeth­er.

What does he sell?” Bill said.

What?” she said.

He did not answer.

Sundays, okay?” she said. “But not a lot of them.”

All right,” he said.

Bill had been with Maggie a half dozen times in a year. Then, late one fall Sunday after­noon, he arrived at the Inn of Steelage and after he tapped the bell on the counter twice with the tip of his index fin­ger, a man stepped out from the door­way beyond the desk. The man touched a nap­kin at his mouth and then held it at his side. “Need a place for the night?” he said, as he arrived at the counter.

Bill’s eyes went to the door­way. There was a light on inside the room and the aro­ma of fried chick­en. Bill’s heart turned. He had been mar­ried once. Arriving home in a jack­et and tie was not enough, he remem­bered that. These days, it sim­ply felt like all he was capa­ble of. He had been lucky to find a woman like Maggie.

Room?” the man said, when Bill remained silent.

A sin­gle, yes,” Bill said.

The man pushed over an info card to Bill and Bill stared at him a moment longer. “Is there any­thing else?” the man said. He had a boxer’s nose, flat­tened,  heavy-look­ing eye­brows and there were brush-strokes of gray at his tem­ples.

Your din­ner is aro­mat­ic,” Bill said. He thought that Maggie could hear and he did not want to sound afraid, “I guess I am hun­gry. Can you rec­om­mend a place?”

The man’s thick fin­gers were already flut­ter­ing over the key­board of the com­put­er at one end of the counter. Then he said some­thing that sound­ed like V-8 Chapeau.

Excuse me?” Bill said.

Vietnamese place,” he said. “Take a right on Elm Street. They will be open on Sunday, right?” He said this last part in a loud­er voice.

Yes,” a woman’s voice said from the light­ed room.

The man said, “Tell them you are stay­ing here, you’ll get a ten per­cent dis­count. They can use the busi­ness.”

Bill was giv­en Room 5. He opened the door, but then he sud­den­ly could not bear the idea of this room with­out Maggie’s arrival to look for­ward to. He decid­ed to get back into his Acura. He was not in the mood for exot­ic food, but he, some­what des­per­ate­ly,  invent­ed the idea that Maggie would show up at the Vietnamese place. She’d heard what her hus­band had to say.

The restau­rant was in a small, detached, beige-paint­ed build­ing that stood on the same block as a tire repair shop. The words Viet Château were illu­mi­nat­ed over the door­way in straw­ber­ry neon and inside a slight, dap­per man in a jack­et, white shirt and pow­der blue neck­tie stood at a podi­um and nod­ded. Beyond him were tables cov­ered in white table­cloths. At the cen­ter of each table was a slen­der glass vase that held a sin­gle red rose. There were only two oth­er peo­ple in the room, a cou­ple dressed in over­alls sit­ting at the table by the win­dow that looked out over the emp­ty street.

Anywhere you like,” the maitre’d said with a sweep of his hand. Bill select­ed a table for two near the back of the room. Inside the restau­rant music played what seemed to be a tech­no-dance ver­sion of “Slave to Love.” The paper menu list­ed Sea Bass as See Bass and after read­ing this, Bill flipped the menu over a cou­ple of times. He glanced to the cou­ple seat­ed by the front win­dows. They both had fried plat­ters of some­thing and they ate steadi­ly and while they chewed they sim­ply looked out the win­dow.

When the maitre ‘d hap­pened over, he smiled at Bill, a big, piano-key smile and Bill won­dered how much the man had to pay for the caps. The man had black hair and kind eyes and Bill sup­posed he was of Vietnamese descent. He’d had a vision for this restau­rant, this man, and as he stood with his hands behind his back, Bill, unex­pect­ed­ly, recalled an inter­mis­sion of a hock­ey game game he attend­ed in Wheeling where a long red car­pet was rolled onto the ice and then from a tun­nel at the far end of the ice appeared a small man sit­ting atop a uni­cy­cle.  He guid­ed the uni­cy­cle to cen­ter ice and bal­anced him­self with­out touch­ing his feet to the ped­als. He stuck out his right foot and an assis­tant  stacked small bowls on his foot, right side up then upside down, and then, when the uni­cy­clist was ready, he kicked them high in the air and they some­how land­ed all sleeved togeth­er atop his head. Then he tilt­ed him­self for­ward on his uni­cy­cle  and leaned back again. The tall stack of bowls weaved like a cater­pil­lar. Bill remem­bered clap­ping enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly. It all was just right; some­times Bill felt this way, too.

Quite a love­ly place you have here,” Bill said. “I’m not kid­ding.”

Thank you.”

Bill said, “I will have a triple bour­bon, please.” He hand­ed over the menu. “And for din­ner, what­ev­er you rec­om­mend.”

Right away,” the maitre ‘d said.

Oh, no hur­ry,” Bill said, after he was gone.

When the drink arrived, Bill’s bour­bon tast­ed too strong but he drank anoth­er when the maitre ‘d brought it over and then he ate the spe­cial, which was a rice dish pre­pared with sweet shrimp and pork, and it was not until an hour after he’d returned to his motel room that Bill began to feel sick. He had to race for the bath­room and stuck his head down in the toi­let just as he was no longer able to con­trol him­self. Afterward, he sat on the floor with his back against the bath­tub. He began to wait for the next jolt of nau­sea. When it hit, he ducked his head towards the toi­let again. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and closed his eyes as he flushed it.  He sud­den­ly felt a famil­iar,  intense hatred of human exis­tence. Maggie was mar­ried, and he had not worked hard enough to have as much as he did with her. He would be pun­ished, there would be no escap­ing it. The world is despi­ca­ble, he thought. There was nev­er noth­ing for noth­ing, you always had to pay.

Bill con­tin­ued to be sick. It went on. He tried to think of any­thing to make him­self feel bet­ter. He tried to think of times where he had felt bet­ter. He tried to think of times when he’d felt worse. It was all quite uncon­vinc­ing. It will pass, he thought. Bill knew this much, but it was all he knew. He felt exact­ly this way.

After a while, he was just steady enough to go to his bed. He lay down and  closed his eyes and wait­ed for the next moment he would have to rush for the bath­room. He lay still for the longest time.  When he heard the door­knob lock turn, some­thing tight­ened inside his chest. The door was opened and then closed again quick­ly.  “Hello?” he said.

Without a word, the per­son who entered walked over to the bed. For the briefest of moments, he was ter­ri­fied. Then, the per­son lay down next to him on the bed. “I have about five min­utes,” Maggie’s voice said.

I ate some­thing bad at the Château place,” Bill said, in a whis­per.

You don’t have to whis­per,” she said.  He heard her sniff. “Yes, well, I guess you did.”

Bill said, “I don’t want you to see me like this.”

I can’t see you at all,” she said.

In a sec­ond, he said, “Maggie.”

Yes?”

Well, maybe it’s not such a great idea that we keep this up.”

Well, why?”

That guy is your hus­band, right?”

He was my hus­band the last time you were here, too.”

You know what I mean, Maggie. I’ve seen him now. Things don’t feel as sim­ple.” Bill want­ed to reach for her hand but he did not.

I thought you might wor­ry,” she said.  “My hus­band want­ed to sur­prise me today, that’s all. He made me din­ner and every­thing.”

That’s pret­ty good.”

Yes, it is.”

Don’t you feel bad, Maggie?” he said.

No,” she said, right away. “A plate of chick­en wings doesn’t real­ly alter all that much. I’m not igno­rant.”

Bill said, “I ate the spe­cial tonight.”

I wouldn’t have rec­om­mend­ed that restau­rant  nec­es­sar­i­ly,” she said. “I heard Raymond tell you about it and I almost got up to offer anoth­er sug­ges­tion. But Raymond knows the own­er. They play cards at the VFW hall. Anyway, I thought if the three of us were in the room togeth­er, you would feel odd.”

Wouldn’t you, Maggie?”

He heard her sniff again. “Of course,” she said. Her voice was qui­et.

What hap­pened when you heard it was me?” he said.  She did not answer right away and he said, “Maggie?”

I’m think­ing,” she said.

You aren’t going to hurt my feel­ings.”

She gave a lit­tle laugh.

You’re not,” he said.

I am try­ing to say what I felt in an accu­rate way. I am not in love with you, Bill, but you already know that.  When I heard your voice, I wasn’t too sur­prised. I knew every­thing would be okay. Because you and I are not in love, are we?”

He thought about sit­ting alone at the restau­rant ear­li­er. “No,” he said. “I sup­pose we aren’t.”

While you were out there talk­ing with Raymond, I thought what a shame this is. I have two men tonight. I will wake up one day lat­er this week and there won’t be any.” She said this in a light way. She seemed ready to give a soft laugh. He was ready to hear some­thing like that.  She said, “I want you to keep com­ing back. That’s what I want­ed to say.”

Bill  said, “Why?”

Because of this,” she said. She moved her hand back and forth in the air, he could just see the sil­hou­ette of that. “Just this, you know. Talk. Different kind of talk. It’s nice. I’m not going to beg you to come back, though,” she said.

You don’t have to,” he said.

She reached over and squeezed his hand. Then, she was  on her feet. She seemed to be look­ing down at him. “Can I bring you an antacid? Anything?”

No,” he said. “It’ll pass.”

All right,” she said. “And lis­ten, you don’t have to make the bed okay? Last time, you did that. I walked into the room after you were gone, I was so sur­prised by it.”

I was grate­ful,” he said.

I did have to change the sheets,” she said. “Anyway, don’t make the bed. When I open the door, I want to see that some­one was here. I am not ashamed of how I feel. Do you under­stand?”

In a moment, he said, “I am here.”

That’s right, Bill,” she said. “Have a lit­tle faith.”

Good night, Maggie,” he said. “I look for­ward to see­ing you again.”

Good night.”

When Bill opened his eyes in the morn­ing, he could see the sun­light shin­ing behind the gauze-like, roy­al blue cur­tains. He thought the room had an odor to it. Still dressed in his clothes from the night before, Bill went out to his car and removed some clean­ing sam­ples from the trunk. He had a small box filled with clean­ing cloths. He took some sam­ples from his trunk and two clean cloths and then he went back to his room, his bath­room, and began to clean every inch of it. It was not as if he had vom­it­ed all over the bath­room. When he fin­ished in the bath­room, he looked around the room itself and decid­ed the win­dow ledges could do with a wipe down as well. The top of the old tele­vi­sion set. After this was done, he stood by the door and stud­ied the bed. Last night after Maggie had left he slipped under the cov­ers. He tugged at them and this had removed the impres­sion she would have oth­er­wise left behind. Now he walked over to the bed, and, for a minute or two, he lay down where she had. While he was there, he tried to think about what she might think about, though he found this impos­si­ble. He stood again, walked to the door, checked how the bed looked from there. He want­ed her to see that he had not cov­ered her up. Even though what was there now was just his own.

Bill returned his clean­ing prod­ucts to the trunk and removed the hang­er, hold­ing his pressed jack­et and trousers from the hook inside a pas­sen­ger seat win­dow. He show­ered, shaved and dressed in an effi­cient man­ner and then stuffed his wrin­kled clothes in the small laun­dry bag he always brought on the road with him. He sniffed the air inside the room, then walked out to his car and returned to the room with a small bot­tle of air fresh­en­er. He pulled the trig­ger twice, watched the mist dis­ap­pear into the faint sun­light inside the room, sniffed again, then closed the door behind him. He stepped out into the broad sun­light of a Steelage, West Virginia, morn­ing and there was Raymond up by the reg­is­tra­tion office, sweep­ing away the autumn leaves that had gath­ered on the ground out­side the entrance.

Bill tried to decide what he ought to do now. He did not want to be fright­ened of Raymond but Bill also did not want to seem cav­a­lier. Bill stood by his Acura and Raymond con­tin­ued his sweep­ing. Finally, Bill walked in his direc­tion. Raymond looked up when Bill was just a cou­ple of steps away.  Bill held out the room key and said, “Here you go.”

Oh, okay,” Raymond said. He accept­ed it, stuck the key in the pock­et of his kha­ki pants. “Need a receipt?”

Bill thought for a moment, then he said, “Yes, I do.”

Follow me,” Raymond said. He stayed a step ahead of Bill as the men approached the reg­is­tra­tion office. Inside, the office was emp­ty and Bill stood oppo­site the counter from Raymond. “How was the food last night?” Raymond said, after he touched a but­ton on the key­board and the print­er began to hum.

It was man­age­able.”

Raymond’s eyes went to Bill, then to the com­put­er screen, then back to Bill again. “It says here you’ve stayed with us a few times already. Where do you nor­mal­ly eat?”

Bill said, “I usu­al­ly don’t. The road takes away my appetite.” He bobbed on his heels. “But like I said, your food last night smelled good.”

Yeah, the road does that to me, too,” Raymond said. His hands were on the counter . “You know my wife then?”

Bill stuck out his index fin­ger, he moved it back and forth. “The lady … who works here?”

Yeah, the lady who works here. You’re a sales­man, I guess. What do you sell?”

Cleaning prod­ucts.”

Bill under­stood Raymond was watch­ing; Bill was ner­vous but he decid­ed Raymond was only look­ing for a clue. Raymond said, “Why don’t you try to sell us any­thing?”

Bill slid his hands into his pock­ets and said, “Your rooms are very clean.  This is a nice place you have here.”

You darn right it is,” Raymond said. He watched Bill for anoth­er moment, then reached around to the print­er. Raymond pushed the receipt across the counter.

Thanks,” Bill said. He began to fold it, then he tucked the receipt in his back pock­et. “See you next time,” he said.

I’ll be here,” Raymond said.

Bill nod­ded, turned and stepped in the direc­tion of the glass door. He put both hands on the chrome han­dle and pushed it open. Outside again, the last thing Raymond had said still hung in his ears. Bill felt the morn­ing sun on his back. So will I, he thought. In the dis­tance, his Acura held a pair of sword-blades made of white sun­light. One rest­ed on the roof; the oth­er, the hood. He walked steadi­ly in that direc­tion.