She Paid for the Night

By Christopher Learned

She lay on a motel bed, perspiration beading, cigarette ashes tumbling to the floor. From a lamp beside her, a thin illumination was thrown on stained, bare walls, wallpaper curling and ripped. From her hand, a narrow column of smoke ascended through the still, oppressive heat.

She heard the day's remaining murmur. Plumbing whined, doors slammed, running water whispered in a dull rush. Outside the door were footsteps sliding and grinding on the sand strewn cement. There was the vague disjointed sound of distant voices, distant laughter.

In time she rose, her body swaying, her movements enervated, graceless. She stole a step, then found three more to the window sill where she leaned and held with both hands.

Beside the air conditioner, she dropped to her knees.

She tried its buttons again, pressing each, pressing them two and three at a time. The hush in the room wasn't interrupted until she brought her hand against the case, hitting and hitting again.

A squared clear bottle lay on its side on the dresser, a stain of liquor remaining. A torn pack of cigarettes was beside it, cigarettes splayed wide. She bent forward and ran her hand across the dresser's surface, her searching fingers a desperate sound in the silence.

There came a restrained knock upon the door. The woman, startled from her languor, stood and drew a robe tightly about her. She opened the door to where an older man waited, a soiled canvas bag beside him. He squinted in the light of a rusted carriage lamp swirling with insects.

"Maintenance," he said, his voice nearly buried by the roar of the highway. He removed his cap and arranged greasy strands of hair across his scalp. Hard light from outside fell into the room, across her face run with tears, a blue-black bruise at her jaw.

She held his gaze for only an instant, before her heavy eyes drifted downward and darted away. Letting the door stand wide, she stumbled toward the bed and slumped down, the thin mattress arching below her. She pressed herself to the headboard and drew a pillow to her chest, staring at an empty wall.

"Hot as hell in here," he said. He entered, leaving the door open.

There were unlit candles scattered around the room, an unopened bottle of champagne in a bucket of water. The telephone lay in a tumble of cord against the far wall. He saw her small case, a snarl of lingerie hanging from the opening.

"Switch or the fuse I should think. One thing or another," he said. "Hard to complain though, old as they are."

Sinking to the floor, he ran through the machine's controls, then leaned back on his heels and pulled on his stubbled chin. He cast open the bag with a muffled metallic clatter.

Shuffling through it, he removed only a worn screwdriver.

He started on screws at the base of the unit and, with the last removed, drew back the bulky cover revealing dull steel coils and fins choked with knots of dust. The weight in the ensuing stillness made him turn and he saw her silhouette and the glisten of fresh teardrops.

"I'm sorry, you know," he said.

She didn't look up.

"All his carrying on," he said, "your husband, and all. Hollering-"

He stopped short and turned back, setting himself against a small plate on one end of the unit, first removing a fastener, then using the screwdriver to pry the plate up. He wiped his forehead, exhaling patiently. Dust floated around him like a haze in the narrow light.

"I thought he might kill your friend," he said.

He rattled the screwdriver in the hole that the plate had covered. Moving it circularly, it caught and he slowly pushed down upon it until a two-inch plastic cylinder, banded at each end, popped into his hand.

He rolled the cylinder in his hand absently, his eyes focusing then drifting. It was a minute before he concentrated on it again, bringing it up to the light, brushing at it with his thumb.

After turning it fully around, he put it under his nose and sniffed at it.

"It's finished, I'd guess," he said holding the cylinder up.

The man rooted through the bag, turning out tools and broken fixtures. When he reached the bottom he pulled up handfuls of small objects, which he let filter through his fingers.

Finally he picked a familiar looking cylinder from his hand.

He pressed the cylinder into the machine, tapping to be sure it was tight, then drew a breath and pressed a button. The air conditioner began to rumble, fans spinning, motors humming.

A pulsing reverberation grew in the room and the air stirred.

He turned, his face a look of satisfaction, and she met his eyes. As she wiped dampness with a sleeve, a subtle smile grew.

He reassembled the machine, working without conversation, leaving it running. He brought each screw tight and set each panel straight, running his hand across the case when he was finished. He then collected the remaining items on the floor, and got up to leave.

"I didn't think you'd stay," he said.

She held his gaze for a time then nodded as if she knew.

He lifted his bag and stepped outside. She saw him for a moment standing in the sallow light, the spinning shadow of moths against his face. He adjusted his grip on the bag, and pulling the door shut, she could see his head shake.

She extinguished the remaining lamp, and with the curtains drawn there was only shadow.

Light from the highway skipped across the furls of the curtain-tops like the bulbs of a nightclub stage. She felt only the movement of air. For a time she lay staring, eyes moving with thought.

The air conditioner produced a drone that filled the room, vibrating the air such that nothing else was audible. A damp, unhealthy coolness issued from it. Yet, these qualities allowed her to imagine, in the darkness, that she was somewhere else.

~ * ~

Native Shore Fiction


Word Smitten's
TenTen Award
for Fiction
Title: She Paid for the Night - 2003 Honorable Mention
Short Story


Artist: Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn


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