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