by Josh Green
The highway cuts by the Dream Motel in a single eventless curve, jogs this way, snakes that way, and then the highway is gone, sucked down by an unending flatness. Distant silo clusters rise from soybean fields like bad teeth, flanked by leaning barns and farmhouses too gone with distance to really see. Little surrounds the Dream Motel but wind and a haunting openness. The low structure itself is a jagged box, a disruption but no oasis.
During harvest, motel patrons watch combines bite the brittle cornfields. The husk leaves sway and there is the illusion in high winds of a golden sea. But here, standing in the gravel parking lot, pondering what must certainly be the end of an old winter, Charles Newburg can sense that the combines are missing, the corn torn from the fields and stored, and for miles instead there is this hard cold void. Charles grunts. The sun, he sees, is rising to a noontime perch. I’ve never seen so much nothing, thinks Charles, no traffic, no toll roads, no L trains screeching, no larceny, no hustle, nothing. I like this, he thinks. Charles buttons his seersucker blazer against the cold, walks across the little parking lot and toes up to Highway 41. He pulls tight his soft black leather gloves and enjoys the cashmere within. He squints to make out the color of a farmhouse but his vision won't reach, not without his prescriptions. It doesn’t bother him, this weakness, his eyesight. Charles accepts the simple fault of nearsightedness. The elements of his aging can amuse him, enough so now that he breaks a smile across the yellowed teeth he consistently hides. He breathes in the cold air. He wishes he’d been here forty years earlier, after the Army and Korea but before the city got its ropes around him. Charles knows he could have done a number on the farm girls. I like nothing, Charles determines, because it is pure. A truck breaks over the horizon on Highway 41 and Charles turns away, back toward the motel and his long Lincoln. His car is one of only three vehicles in the lot, comprising what appears a sparse motel crowd for Saturday morning. Charles watches his wife, Jean, exit Room 135 in a sundress. Jean doesn’t bother to push back the door so it would retract shut on its own. She stands at the passenger door, shivering, as Charles approaches in his calculated steps, around puddles that were snow. He is in no hurry to leave. She is. “Hold on,” says Charles. “I have a right to be pokey on vacation.” In the wisps of her hair, or the gaunt trappings of her cheeks, Charles notices something about his wife – that she is flawed by her impatience, stricken by her hurry. She is beginning to look elderly, thinks Charles, and especially in the sun. “I feel filthy,” says Jean, exhibiting her hands. “Haven’t you packed everything? Have you returned the key? This is a late start, Charles.” “We’ll be at the casino in an hour,” he says. “No harm done.” “I don’t see the need to stop there.” “I see the need,” says Charles. “I feel lucky, babe.” Jean scoffs, as she does. “Your fascination with child play is obscene,” she says. “You’re an academic, not a high-roller.” The old man pulls his roadster cap lower. Under the cap, at the helm of his big car, he guesses women as young as forty might find him appealing. The truck he’d seen earlier roars onto the lot, chewing gravel as it goes. “I don’t suppose you’d settle for breakfast here,” Charles says. “There’s a little kitchen around back. This looks to be our last option for a long while.” “Fine,” says Jean, pouting, “order me something without grease. I’m going to use our restroom again. Make it to go if you can.” Jean reenters the room quickly and is gone. Charles listens to hear the door lock but his wife neglects to do that. He has the room key with its green plastic danglings in his hand but this, he assures himself, is the middle of nowhere. She’s fine, he thinks. Charles walks through a shoddy corridor to the kitchen, stuffing the room key in his trouser pocket. He whistles something jazz, a loop from Bitches Brew, rhythms that served him well while grading biology exams. He whistles when he’s hungry. Charles enters the kitchen to find that the desk watchman doubles as the Dream Motel cook. The cook, sitting, calls Charles friend, motions with his head to an illuminated menu board. “Shitty out there, eh?” says this cook. “That wind’ll take your face with it.” “Yes,” Charles answers, observing the menu. “Are we south enough yet to order grits? Or okra?” “Not yet,” says the cook, a wobbling brute, “but we get asked all the time. Everybody’s always headed south. Up here we just serve eggs, bacon, and coyote.” “In that case,” smiles Charles, “I’ll have two coyote burgers to go.” The cook stands up from a stool. “Ham and eggs, two orders, right on,” and he disappears behind saloon doors. Charles sits at the lone table and, in his boredom, pits a saltshaker in a race against the pepper, budging the glass containers with his knuckles. Out the window a man in blue is pushing a truck behind a tool shed. No, sees Charles, that’s two men, and big men. The wind outside is warring with a naked walnut tree. Farther outside, beyond the shed, the winter-stricken land cracks and jags, and Charles likens it to the rippled slice of Lake Michigan he can see from his Gold Coast condo. He wonders for a moment if he could find the patience to farm – a city sophisticate turned man of the earth. He could mount a tractor at daybreak and really be at ease. Charles refocuses on the winning pepper. He worries for some reason that laziness will overtake him soon. He’s seen it happen – that despicable, listless lull – to retirees before him. He knows there must be a more dignified finale, or at least a sexier one. The salt, now a half table behind, is out of contention in his solitary game. He’s trying to forget the argument regarding erectile pills he’d had with Jean last night – her persuasion, his scientific objection. Desire, he knows, is the real issue. “Did you all sleep through the storm last night?” asks the cook, who sounds like he’s hovering over a grill. “Knocked out power up the western side of the state. Clear from Carlisle to Cartersville. It’s odd, a storm like that in March.” “We drove half the day,” Charles says. “We couldn’t go any farther than here. I hit the pillow and was incoherent. So, no, it didn’t budge us.” The cook pauses, coughs. “A buddy of mine works up at the prison,” he says. “Apparently the winds kicked out their emergency generators. Things was in chaos – no lights, no power.” “Sounds like a mess.” “My buddy said the guards had to shoot all these convicts and pick them out of the barbwire this morning.” “Oh,” perks Charles. “What a way to go.” The cook returns with a heavy stack of Styrofoam and sets it on a counter. He tells Charles breakfast is on the house. “No,” posits Charles, “I insist,” and he drops a twenty on the keys of an antiquated register. “Give us a discount next time we stop in.” The cook laughs. “People only have this dream one time,” the cook says, and he licks the skin of a leafy cigar. “You all have a good trip now.” Charles nods and begins to walk out. He turns back to the kitchen as he leaves, holding the door ajar with his free hand. “We’ll send up a postcard from Florida,” he tells the cook. “We’ll make St. Petersburg eventually,” and the door closes. “We’re going the customary route,” Charles says to the door, the wall, “because it’s warm down there. And we’ve read it’s a great place to die.”
* * *
From the doorway of Room 135 it’s evident to Charles that his vacation is over. He drops his breakfast and the eggs spit across the carpet and threshold. His wife is in bed with two young men. The three of them together are only a series of heads at the end of a brown comforter and blanket. Jean is in the middle, disheveled. Her mascara streaks down her temples and puddles in black-grey blotches at her ears. In forty nine years Charles has never seen her so helpless. “Step in,” says the left head. He looks like the younger of the two, certainly of the three. His head is peeled but is less lined than the others. The right head is browner, fully Latino, his eyes severe. “Shut it,” says the right. “Get in.” Charles obliges. He holds his hands above his head though he is not asked to. He feels sweaty and numb. He doesn’t see scattered clothing and he is looking everywhere – the lamp, the vanity, the armoire, the hallway sink – for that. “What do you want from us?” asks Charles. “What do you want from her?” The right head breaks into a laugh. Charles sees the vibrations of the laughing in his wife’s cheeks, or at least he thinks he sees that. There is commotion at her midsection, instigated, thinks Charles, by the extremities of the right head. Jean closes her eyes, swallows hard. She tightens her face and hardly breathes. “Fellas,” Charles injects, “do what you want with her but keep your hands off my fucking Lincoln.” He has the attention of both heads now. “I’ll be right back.” Charles exits the room and barely hears the objecting men behind him as he squints into the sunlight. He thinks he can make out some talk about a knife. The Lincoln is the last car in the lot. It’s a wide vehicle, a Lake Shore Drive cruiser, and disproportionate, Charles realizes, in the tiny parking lot. The passenger side is spacious as a walk-in closet but was never suitable in Jean’s eyes. Charles looks away from the car. It pains him to see it, to think of its purpose as a vessel for romantic travel. He notices the empty fields again but the allure in them is gone. He focuses on the ground, circumnavigating the vehicle by instinct. The motel sign near the highway casts a short crooked shadow. Charles pulls his keys from his pocket and flips open his trunk. In it he shuffles beach chairs and his easel and the beauty case until he comes across a brown paper bag. He lifts to check its weight: it is the bag. He reaches in and snares a full handle of Kentucky bourbon, a weighty mass of aged brown liquor. Equipped, he walks around his car, up two steps, into the room, and kicks shut the door behind him. “You really don’t want any of that,” Charles says to the men, pointing to the lower half of his wife. “Trust me.” Charles sits in a padded chair beside the bed and positions the whiskey atop a worn Bible. He stands without looking at the bed and walks to the hallway sink, where he takes two plastic cups from a stack of five. He returns to the chair, pours a cup half full of liquor and kicks one pennyloafer over the other, exhales as if relaxing. He sips at the cup and grimaces against the whiskey’s bite. The others watch him but do not move. “Now, please, boys,” says Charles. “Enlighten me as to what I was interrupting here.” No one speaks. The silence frightens Charles. He tips back a deeper pull. “My wife and I have worked our whole lives to do what we started doing yesterday. I am a professor of science and I’m taking what I call an eternal sabbatical. Which is to say, boys, I ain’t going back. She’s not either. We were off to Florida to enjoy each other, and to maybe find some real estate we want to buy. That is until you boys got in the middle of things.” The right head, the darker one, runs his index finger behind Jean’s ear, tucking her hair in a tight twirl around her lobe. Charles sees the man’s blue sleeve and is comforted. “Please,” says Charles, struggling with the last of his drink, “there’s no need to touch her.” The left head tells Charles to not move. “I have a knife against her,” he says, his jaws muscled knots. “We don’t want to hurt her. We need to leave the state. We need to leave right now.” Jean shoots her husband a warning glance that piques his concern. He asks if she is okay. Through her whimpering she conveys that she is. “Why don’t we have a drink first, boys,” Charles offers, as he pours the second cup full and refills his. “This is the white label stuff. It’s tasty and malted and unpredictably smooth.” “We weren’t going to rape her,” says the left head. “I know how this looks.” “It doesn’t matter,” Charles says. “We were warning her on the bed when you came in. I wanted you to think I had a gun.” “That doesn’t matter,” says Charles. “Don’t even say those things. You should have a drink. It’s probably been a while.” The left one peels off the comforter and sits upright, introduces himself as Manny but does not offer his hand. The knife he grips is long and clean. He is barrel-chested with a thick neck, a pair of intelligent brown eyes, his inked arms simultaneously elegant and crude. The blue denim he wears is burned with the markings of Carlisle Penitentiary. As he leans forward, Charles sees Jean is still wearing her sundress, which relieves him. “Sit up, baby,” he tells her. “Have a bourbon.” Manny reaches for the second cup, his knife aimed at Charles’ midsection. “There’s really no need,” says Charles. “I won’t attack because I can’t. Maybe forty years ago but not now. I’ve been a hostage before and I’m pretty good at it.” Jean scurries across the bed, her dress trailing behind. She tucks herself between Charles and the wall. “I’m calling the police,” she says. “I’m calling the hotel people.” The right one swells up and lunges toward the couple. Manny intercepts him, calls him Raul. “Ah, no, babe,” says Charles. “There’s no need to call anybody. A little talk is in order, and then we’ll all be on our way.” He offers his wife a drink, which she declines, crying louder. “Lady,” snarls this Raul, “stop that shit.” “Sit down,” Manny says to his cohort, his finger at the man’s sternum. “Stay down.” Manny turns to the couple and peeks through a crevasse in the flowered motel curtains. “We need to make Tennessee immediately. To Manchester, other side of Nashville,” he says. “We can’t hang around here. I like you but I’ll cut you. Your car is the last one.” “Your truck?” says Charles. “I saw you in a truck. What happened?” The two men look at each other. Raul rubs his face and bites the long white nail of his index finger. “I like Lincolns,” he says. “That’s all you need to know.” Manny edges the curtains open with the knife. He looks at the sky, the highway, beyond, then back. “There’s a guy out there,” he says. “Big guy, white shirt.” “It’s probably that cook,” says Charles. “He runs this place. He knows about the prison. You’ll want to avoid him.” Manny sets his cup on a dresser and Charles stands to retrieve it. He tosses back the liquor Manny didn’t finish, emptying the cup before he sits back down to his own. “Really, babe,” he says to Jean. “You should try this stuff. A retirement gift from Steve Brennan in admissions. He has impeccable taste in liquor.” Charles winks at his wife. She is adorable to him behind the chair. He realizes she once acted like this in cars at the Starlight Seven Drive-In. She would put Charles between herself and the horror pictures and shriek in little exaggerated fits, pretending to cry, her face like the saddest porcelain doll. Then she’d touch her husband’s cheek – married, as they were, without permission at eighteen – and call him heroic. When it felt too right he worried she’d take him for granted one day, though he was inexperienced and could not predict why that might be. Eventually he rolled with what came, anticipating sweeter years ahead, his trust in some higher science. “The prison,” says Manny, “it’s probably made the Tennessee papers. Everyone who got out will be headed this way. There’s nowhere else to hide in this county.” Charles kicks his feet onto the bed, a Floridian pose. “It must have been a riot last night,” he says. “In every sense of the word. I can’t imagine the feeling. How long had you been in?” Raul stares into a wall mirror and twists the graying crest of his mustache, just beneath his nose. “You ask a lot of questions,” he says to the reflected Charles, and the old man nods, smiling. “It was an old jail,” says Raul. “It wasn’t ready for that kind of a storm. There’s nothing around here to stop the wind.” “Shit,” says Manny. “He’s coming.” Manny pulls shut the curtains and holds them tightly together, so tight the material shakes against a wire-thin slit of incoming sunlight. The cook shadows the window in a heap of forearms and torso as he passes. There are three slow knocks at the motel door. Charles whispers to not react and keep still. “Yes?” says Charles toward the door. “This is the Newburg’s.” “Looks like you made a mess here of the eggs,” says the cook. “Was everything alright?” “Oh,” says Charles, “that.” The cook coughs. “Are you going to stay another night? It’s getting into the afternoon and I have to ask.” “My wife is under the weather,” says Charles. “We’ll stay again, sure.” “I’ll need you up at the office then. When you can.” “Sure thing,” says Charles, emptying another cup. “You bet.” Raul stares into the old man’s face. “I’ll be down in a moment,” Charles says. “See you in a minute.” The cook lumbers past the curtains toward the office. Raul walks to the bedtable, pours a cup and taps Charles on his forehead, beneath the brim of his roadster cap. “Since when do they malt Kentucky bourbon?” Raul asks, still hushed. He peeks over the chair, over Charles, to Jean, who is tucked there, shivering and embryonic. “You want to know what I did?” Raul asks the couple. “Why I was incarcerated?” “Tax fraud?” Charles laughs. Raul nearly laughs. “No,” he says. “Nothing like that.” “I knew a colleague who was nabbed for taxes, a sharp guy,” says Charles. “But what a boring crime – such a dud criminal. He’d have to admit to that on the inside, I’m sure. He went in without a scar. Came out a year later, ashamed but meaner.” “I won’t go back there,” says Raul. “It’s like dying in slow motion.” Charles stands up. He raises his hand, palm up, and inflates his chest, as if instructing pupils who are not there. He feels jolted and foolish, a bizarre sensation that preceded his earliest fighting in the trenches of Pyongyang. Deeper in this emotion Charles can sense dignity, rebellion. His open hand is shaking and he can’t steady it. Neither fugitive pays much attention. “I want to go with you,” Charles says, equally to both men. “Farther than Tennessee – I’ll get you to Mexico. We’ll just keep going. We’ll all go. I know a way through, via Dallas, a patrol-proof way,” and behind Charles his wife sobs. He refills both cups, hands the second one back to Raul and leans over the chair. “Ah, doll,” says Charles. “No need to weep. We’ve waited the last ten years for these boys.” Manny gasps near the window. “They’re coming,” he says. “Three cars – I see them,” and he backs from the window into Raul, spilling his cup on the carpet. Raul runs to the window and rips open the curtains. Sunlight splashes in, blinds him. “I don’t see,” he says. “There’s nothing. You’re seeing a mirage. A winter mirage.” Raul squints. He sees the far glimmer of two patrol cars and a sheriff’s sport utility. Then he does not see. “Out – out,” says Raul, bending to grip Jean by the nape of her neck. She pulls a bed lamp to her and swings it at the man’s open hand, batting his wrist and elbow. The hollow lamp thuds on bone. Charles, standing three feet away, is incensed by the sudden attack on his wife, by how diminutive she seems in the shadow of a charging man. Charles tosses his cup into the scuffle, dotting Raul’s face with drops of liquor. “Come on,” says Charles. “Let’s go without her. I see lights.” Manny grips Charles by his baggy blazer sleeve and pulls him against a dresser and wall. A cheap reprint of a barn at sunset nearly shakes off its nail. Manny puts the blade against Charles’ clavicle but lowers it as he winces, opting for a slot between the folds of his starched collar. “Enough with the hostage element,” Charles says. “Open the door and we are gone.” Raul, who had started to barricade the door with a padded chair, looks instead to Manny, and both men breathe audibly. Manny nods. He backs away from Charles as Raul pulls open the motel door. A cold wind permeates the room. It startles Charles. He watches the wind lift and play with his wife’s hair, which sticks in strands to her wet face. He sees the damage this day has left on her, in her, and he feels gutted by that. So he recalls her former face, the emblem of her playful years. He remembers her on their first date, the summer of a year he’s mostly forgotten, a dusty county fair near Joliet. They shared a sack of popcorn and she sang by a broken Wurlitzer. She sang without music and she was good. They smoked cigarettes by a river where the moonlight flickered, and in the light-dark variations she was incandescent and mysterious. She cried that night beside the river, said her parents would never approve of a military husband. Charles said she shouldn’t fuss, that nothing so real could fall apart, that he’d never been more confident in anything. “I want to walk on the beach with you,” Charles says to his wife. “At night. Until the beach patrol kicks us off.” Raul kicks the old man in his chest. The force sends Charles onto the bed, shoulders first. The commotion in the room momentarily dies. Charles manages a fractured breath, two breaths, and heaves himself onto his feet. He is exasperated, nauseas. Standing there he realizes he’s taller than his captors by a full head, but he also knows attacking them would only hasten the inevitable. He cracks his knuckles. “File in behind me,” says Charles. “Run quick to the passenger side.” Charles goes for his Lincoln in a lanky rhythmless gallop. The men fall in behind him but they stop – frozen, suddenly, motionless – without warning. The cook, in the archway of a motel porch, has a rifle, and he has discharged it in a single cracking boom. Charles falls across the sidewalk, into the gravel, a red mist and flailing limbs. He settles beside his car and comes to his knees. He pulls at his chest. He is gasping. The cook curses loudly and ducks into a room. Manny and Raul nod to each other, then dart from Room 135 to the Lincoln. They pull Charles into their arms, patting him. Tangled in the searching arms of both men, peaceful and dizzy and curious, Charles sees a passing coyote beyond the highway. He admires the clean animal coat, the roving eyes and fleeting paws. Charles can see it all. The coyote is determined and hungry, crossing so much emptiness with an abbreviated and careful stride. It heads instinctually toward a farmhouse cluster and the easy takings of domesticated men and women. The snout, thinks Charles, is the most beautiful part. The sirens converge on the Dream Motel but only in murmurs. Before the coldness overtakes him, Charles digs into his pocket, distinguishes the right shape, and hands Manny his upturned ignition key. The old man hunkers to the ground, rolls onto his back, and laughs like a jester toward a fit of passing clouds.
JOSH GREEN is a journalist and fiction writer living in Atlanta. His work has appeared in Lake Effect, Bloodroot, Amarillo Bay, genesis magazine and most recently placed second for the Kneale Award in Purdue University’s 76th Annual Literary Competition. He covers the crime beat for a metro newspaper and enjoys watching the city rise.