from a novel in progress
The Harris Suites crumbled slowly on the back strip of Virginia Beach. Alex paused and looked up at the bleached yellow paint of the façade. In each room, save one, the window blinds were drawn. Even in the bright sun of midday he could sense the darkness inside those rooms. He felt certain that if he opened a door he would feel the palpable bite of the desperation as it leaked out. A man no less than sixty-five stood outside the one room with the blinds up. His girth and the white bush of his beard might have qualified him as a shopping mall Santa Claus, but at a glance no parent would send their child near him. His shirt, an advertisement for a company Alex had never heard of, was stained with grease of an indeterminate origin. His beard was tangled and his hair dangled down over his eyebrows likely obscuring his vision. Alex felt that if he had ever seen a person whose inner fire had gone out it was this man.
As Alex stood looking up, not caring if he was caught watching, the man leaned down and reached into a small cooler at his feet. He pulled up a can of beer, opened the tab and began drinking in thirsty gulps. The action seemed to tire him though and he returned to leaning on the railing and staring out towards the strip. Alex would discover soon enough that the second floor balcony of the Harris suites afforded a narrow view of the ocean as seen between two of the upscale hotels across the way. In the weeks to come he would marvel at the power of the water to transfix even the most downtrodden of men.
Alex hitched his canvas duffel up onto his shoulder and walked through the front door.
“I need a room for a while,” he informed the woman behind the counter without any attempt at greeting or introduction. Alex was coming to understand these establishments. He summed them up with the succinct phrase, “nobody wants to know.” When he handed her the cash across the counter she wouldn’t worry about his name or what he’d come there to do. When he took the first walk to his room his neighbors wouldn’t introduce themselves. They wouldn’t even give the curt Yankee nod that he’d known growing up in Boston. They would studiously ignore him while taking a sip of beer and staring at whatever else was available. With this check-in Alex had come to accept the fact that despite being at least two decades younger than the age of the average occupant, he was one of them. He’d be living in places like this until he caught up with the average or died trying.
As expected Santa sipped his can of Rolling Rock and said nothing as Alex walked past and entered the adjacent room. Alex stood at the threshold and examined the room carefully before stepping in. Two flops ago he’d stepped on a hypodermic needle on entering the room. Not thinking, he’d cleaned the resulting mess up with bare hands and while he hadn’t pricked himself the fear of what he might have contracted just by contact led to six months of sleepless nights and a massive outlay of cash for the necessary tests. The self-imposed celibacy of those months only added to the frustration.
Satisfied he stepped in. The room reeked of failure. He turned on the light, revealing wood paneling that would have been at home in 1961 and bedding nearly as old. The television, somewhat surprisingly, was of a newer vintage, flat screen. Alex took that as a sign of what mattered to the people he’d be calling neighbors for at least the next two months. That was what he’d paid for, with an option to extend. He knew enough to pay for housing while he was flush, before the money started burning a hole.
This room seemed clean enough and he flipped his duffel onto the top of the dresser. No need to unpack just now. He collapsed on the bed, tired from the bus ride, tired after walking from the bus station, tired from the oppressive understanding that this room represented the boundary of his world for the next eight weeks. He flipped on HBO and fell asleep watching a shitty movie.
The new gig was fine. Alex recalled caring once about what he played or where or with whom. He had moved past that. The club was sedate, the clientele mainly older woman playing for one last chance at avoiding spinsterhood. The few men there had their pick of who’s romantic fantasies they might kill off for good. Alex, playing someone else’s drums, kept the beat, nothing more nothing less. Fuck it. He had a steady paycheck in a house band for the summer.
The guys in the band bought him a drink after the show. They stayed after hours and shot the shit with the bartender, a young man raking in generous tips from those self-same almost-spinsters.
It took twenty minutes before one of them asked the question, “So what’s it like?” Some got there sooner. Some a little later. They all asked. When you played with small time bands like this, played with kids who still had dreams, they wanted to know what it was like to make it. Almost make it, Alex reminded himself. He wondered how many gigs he got just for this reason. That he had been the drummer for Mayflower Hill.
He dodged it. “Not like you’d think. This is where the real music gets made.” Platitudes. Make them feel better about being in a shitty band playing shitty bars. As quickly as he could drain his beer he made his apologies and stepped out onto the darkened boardwalk to make his way home.
The ice cream stands were dark and shuttered, the arcades quiet. Even the bars had long since turned off their neon signs. The people left out at this time of night were looking for something. Sex for most. Drugs for some. A quick mugging with no witnesses? That couldn’t be ruled out. Alex put his head down and walked with his hands loosely in his pockets. Alex didn’t like walking with the wad of cash he’d been handed at the end of the night. His stance clearly communicated that he didn’t want company or conversation. He hoped it made him look tough. When he came to the corner with the tattoo parlor over the t‑shirt stand, he had noted it carefully on the way out so as not to get lost later, he turned right and walked the last block to his room. As he had that afternoon, he shared his bed with HBO.
He woke late the next morning to the sounds of Saturday at the beach. Out of curiosity and a degree of hope he could not justify, he opened the small refrigerator in the unit. The previous tenant had left two cartons of Chinese take out. Alex opened one. Inside he found a mossy green science experiment. He put it back.
He dug a pair of swim trunks from his duffel, pulled them on, unfolded a ten dollar bill from his stash and headed out to find coffee and a donut. He downed them slowly while sitting on a bench on the boardwalk, his feet up on the railing, still cool before the midday heat would render the green painted metal too hot to touch. He watched Virginia Beach stream past as he ate. He guessed at the ages of the women he checked out, careful to avoid glancing at anyone he thought might be too young.
A bartender at some stop along the way had told him that the formula was half your age plus seven. He tried to picture who had said it or where, but the cities had been too many and the bars…forget it. Going by the math of his forgotten friend his cut off was somewhere in the late twenties.
The sun warmed his bare chest. This was what had once again drawn him East. Alex never loved the water. He could look at it but had no desire to be in it and flat out refused to be on it in a craft of any size. For Alex it was the sun, that warm pulse touching his skin. What religion Alex had came from his understanding of seventh grade science. The sun made everything go. Plants, animals, weather. Fuck, these days, even electricity. All that shit needed the sun and so the sun was what he worshiped. At thirty-seven he still worshiped the same way, a bit of a burn on the first day that slowly grew into a tan. After that, his skin bronzed, he could be out for hours and not burn again.
His months in Nashville had left him pale. Landlocked, cramped for so many days in recording studio sessions running hours over time. He cringed and shook his head as he thought about Frank, the producer, in his ridiculous hat, coming at them through the studio speaker and saying, “okay boys, one more time.” They played until Frank and his ten-gallon overcompensation were satisfied. Then they cleared the studio while the pretty boy country star came in and recorded his karaōke over their tracks.
Nashville’s winter had been long and gray. If it lacked the snow he knew from back home it maintained all of the dreary melancholia. The bars seemed the only places that were warm, the only places that were still in color. After that the sun felt like kisses on his skin. He spread his arms wide over the back of the bench and closed his eyes. When he woke the sun was dipping lower in the sky. His torso glowed red.
He guessed her to be fifty. He didn’t care. She’d watched him throughout the show and now, during their break she came over to him.
“Can you drink on the job?” she asked.
“It’s the best part of what I do.”
“Lynne.” She extended her hand.
They took their beers to a corner table under which she slid her foot up and down his leg. He found her attractive enough, or he saw that he would have found her attractive at one point in her life. Her voice was nasal and annoying, her hair too teased, her skirt too tight. He ignored that. He wouldn’t split hairs tonight. The band had invited him to extend his stay. It called for celebration. Besides, four weeks of celibacy since his arrival in Virginia had left him antsy. Just as well that he get back in the game with a sure thing. He endured the requisite chitchat and they made plans for her to wait for him until the show was done.
Midway through the set a thought caused him to lose the beat. He got back on-time but the thought lingered. His place? Did sex happen at the Harris Suites? Could anyone cut through the gloom of the place and find himself still in the mood? The other tenants were, and he hoped he was right about this, well past the age of having sex at all. He was the only candidate for a roll in the hay, but the idea of that act in that place horrified him.
The worry was unnecessary. Lynne sidled up to him even as his drums still rang from the last number.
“My hotel’s only a few blocks away. Let’s have a drink there.”
Alex woke up squinting at the ceiling. Unlike the water-stained drop ceiling over his bad at the Harris, it hovered, solid and white the whole way across. The bed smelled like lavender, the sheets thick and luxurious. Air conditioning beat back the humidity of the Virginia summer. Slowly the disparate memories of the night before coalesced into a narrative. Sex. She hadn’t wasted any time getting to that. Then the mini-bar. A one night stand played in reverse. After that, things got hazy.
He rolled over and found her gone.
“Hello?” He called out wondering who leaves last night’s conquest alone in their hotel room. He wanted a shower, desperate to bathe in a place with the kind of scouring water pressure the Harris lacked. The idea though, seemed pointless. Alex had never understood people who shower only to put the same clothes back on.
He rooted around at the bottom of the sheets until he found his underwear. He pulled his clothes on and was trying to decide between leaving a note and simply vanishing when he heard the door. She walked in carrying coffees and a white bag that promised some manner of baked goods.
“Were you walking out on me before breakfast?” she asked.
Alex didn’t bother to deny his intentions or to point out that for all he knew she had walked out on him. She looked better in the morning. Was it the pink light that filtered through the curtains or her hair pulled into a ponytail instead of chemically defying gravity. That was the only point in the morning’s favor. Free from the din of the bar and the haze of alcohol-fused lust her voice grated.
They made morning-after conversation while they drank the coffee and ate apple danish, drizzled with icing.
“Where are these from?”
Maybe he’d go back for more. Alone. On his way home.
She didn’t answer, but flashed him a look and raised her eyebrows in invitation.
“I don’t do morning sex.” he said. “I can’t actually. Can’t get off before lunch.” He watched her face fall. “No. Really. It isn’t a lie. It’s frustrating as all hell. I mean I’d like to. There’ve been lots of times where…” He stopped. Too awkward. And she wasn’t buying it anyway.
She grew cold after that, impatient. He invented somewhere he needed to be and left without the pretense of offering a phone number.
Back at the Harris Alex unpacked his duffel. His’s rule was that no place was home until you spent a night away from it and then came back. A shitty lay in someone else’s bed qualified. He could move in now.
The drawers had dead bugs in them. He pulled them from the dresser and dumped the bugs in the trash before he placed his clothes in. He had reached a point in life where the stability of his situation was marked by whether or not he had a dresser with a specific drawer set aside for underwear.
The last thing he pulled from the bag was the wad of cash. It had grown in the weeks of playing. He took from it only for food. Now, before stuffing it in the back of his underwear drawer, he pulled enough to cover another two months and then a ten beyond that. He went down to the front desk and booked the room for another month.
Afterwards he walked to the convenience store across the street. The air conditioning in the tiny space prickled his skin. Still, he enjoyed it. Even the mornings were growing oppressive. He picked out a six pack of Sam Adams, took it home and didn’t bother with the pretense of going into his room or the justification of saying, “It’s five o’clock somewhere.” He pulled out a bottle and banged it against the railing to take off the cap. The beer was too fancy for the Harris, but Alex didn’t care. Just because you cast your lot in with a group didn’t mean you had to adopt their shit taste in beer.
He took a swig and leaned against the railing. Santa emerged tonguing a cigar and carrying his cooler of Rolling Rock. He took his place at the railing a few feet down from Alex. Santa looked at the drummer and tilted his can with a “here’s to you” gesture. Alex acknowledged it before they both turned away to look at their small sliver of the sea.
Paul Myette’s fiction has appeared in the Elm Leaves Journal and Apt Literary Magazine and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A graduate of the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English, Paul is currently at work on his first novel. He lives with his wife and children in Byfield, MA where he shares his writing space with several aggressive squirrels.